BRENTWOOD, N.Y. — Steven Martinez’s life was turned upside down by an ill-conceived joke. He was a sophomore at Long Island’s Brentwood High School, a few days before Thanksgiving in 2019, when he made a post on Snapchat late one night about hiding an AK-47 at Area 51 in Nevada.
The police arrived around 2 a.m. looking for him. Martinez spent the morning at the station being questioned, he recalled. He was then handcuffed and taken to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
Doctors determined he wasn’t a threat. The police didn’t press charges. Yet the Brentwood Union Free School District suspended Martinez for more than six months. He wouldn’t be allowed back until the next school year. In the meantime, he’d get a few hours of tutoring a week.
New York state allows students to be suspended for up to 180 days — an entire school year. As a result, thousands of students across the state have been kept out of school for a month or more, cut off from their peers and receiving just an hour or two of instruction per day. The New York State Education Department does not collect data on suspension lengths, but public records requests to 17 of the state’s largest school districts uncovered more than 6,200 suspensions of more than 20 days from 2017-18 to 2021-22. (These numbers don’t include New York City, which prohibited most long-term suspensions in 2019.)
A bill recently introduced for the fifth consecutive state legislative session would ban suspensions of more than 20 school days under most circumstances. At least 15 states already have similar laws in place. A recent report from a State Education Department task force recommends such a limit in all but the rarest of circumstances. New York’s proposed legislation, called the Solutions not Suspensions bill, is co-sponsored by more than a third of state senators and has been co-sponsored by nearly half the members of the state assembly. Yet the legislation has never made it out of committee.
New York educators, concerned about school safety and wary of being restricted by legislators, have pushed back on the idea of a cap. With misbehavior surging in the aftermath of pandemic lockdowns, district leaders say there are times when removal from school for more than a month is warranted, particularly when a student’s behavior harms or interferes with other students.
Advocates pushing for the bill argue that keeping students out of school for more than 20 days does not address any of the underlying issues that led to the suspensions but creates new ones by fomenting disengagement and forcing students to fall significantly behind in class.
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