New York City Public School Discipline Reform Leads to More Violence, Study Finds

Published May 3, 2017

“There has been a dramatic shift in school discipline policy, spurred by national statistics showing stark racial differences in school suspension rates and the assumption that bias was behind the differences,” wrote Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Max Eden in “School Discipline Reform and Disorder: Evidence from New York City Public Schools, 2012–16,” published by the Manhattan Institute in March. “From 2011–12 to 2013–14, the number of suspensions nationwide fell by nearly 20 percent.”

School Violence Increase

“While school climate is impossible to measure in most districts, it can be measured in New York City, America’s largest school district, thanks to surveys that question students and teachers about learning conditions in their school,” Eden wrote. “Over the last five years, two major discipline reforms have taken effect in New York: one at the beginning of the 2012–13 school year, under former mayor Michael Bloomberg; and one in the middle of the 2014–15 school year, under current mayor Bill de Blasio. Though the reforms resulted in similar reductions in total suspensions, Bloomberg’s reform prevented teachers from issuing suspensions for first-time, low-level offenses. De Blasio’s reform required principals to seek permission from district administrators to suspend a student.

“This report analyzes student and teacher surveys covering the five-year period of 2011–12 to 2015–16,” Eden wrote. “The key findings: school climate remained relatively steady under Bloomberg’s discipline reform, but deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s. Specifically, teachers report less order and discipline, and students report less mutual respect among their peers, as well as more violence, drug and alcohol use, and gang activity. There was also a significant differential racial impact: nonelementary schools where more than 90 percent of students were minorities experienced the worst shift in school climate under the de Blasio reform.” 

Federal Funding Threats

Eden told School Reform News the Obama administration pressured schools to implement these failing reforms.

“The Obama Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights threatened to pull federal funding if school districts didn’t launch discipline reform efforts in the spirit of de Blasio’s reform,” Eden said. “Usually, discipline reformers claim victory whenever suspensions fall, but what truly matters is how schools are affected, and while there’s always clear data on suspension numbers, there’s rarely much data at all on school climate.”

Eden says the evidence shows the reforms had the opposite of their intended effect.

“The data tells us students and teachers believe schools have become less respectful and more violent under de Blasio’s discipline reform,” Eden said. “This is alarming enough in itself, but given this is our only data point, we have to face the prospect this might be happening in hundreds of districts nationwide.”

‘Acting on Ideological Conviction’

Eden says it’s hard to imagine de Blasio reversing course.

“It’s clear he’s acting based on ideological conviction rather than a data-driven examination on the effects of his actions,” Eden said. “I’m more optimistic about the prospects for change in other districts. My hope is once the coercive federal pressure is removed, districts will be able to do discipline reform right.”

Peers ‘Paying the Price’

Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and executive editor of Education Next, says the disciplinary reforms have gone too far and are hurting students.

“I am sympathetic to the argument we have been suspending too many students under zero-tolerance policies, which in many cases tied the hands of administrators and made them suspend kids for infractions where this wasn’t necessary and perhaps other approaches might have worked better,” Petrilli said. “But now we’ve gone to the other extreme, and the peers of the disruptive students are paying the price.”

Petrilli says the Trump administration should make it clear the Office for Civil Rights is not going to try to push school districts into changing their school discipline policies the way the Obama administration did.

“I think this would help a lot, otherwise it’s up to people at the state and local level to raise questions about these policies,” Petrilli said. “If school districts feel they are suspending too many students, and they want to try some different things, fine, but they need to make sure they do it without creating more disorder in the classroom.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.


Max Eden, “School Discipline Reform and Disorder: Evidence from New York City Public Schools, 2012–16,” The Manhattan Institute, March 2017: