After the stabbing of a Syracuse area teacher on May 25, Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick has called for a major overhaul of the disciplinary system of the Syracuse School District.
According to Fitzpatrick, the very first step should be to undo a previous overhaul that had been implemented after an exhaustive investigation and 44-page report by the State Attorney General’s Office in 2014.
The original overhaul sought to address the fact that Syracuse public schools had the highest suspension rates in the nation. Since the overhaul, suspensions have fallen by more than half, from 22,922 in the 2012-2013 school year to 10,377 in the 2015-2016 school year.
The State Attorney General also sought to rectify the deep racial disparity in school suspensions. During the 2012-2013 school year, 66% of students suspended were black, compared to 17% who were white. Progress on that front, however, has been slow, with the number of black students being suspended still representing 50% of the whole, and white student suspensions rising to 23%.
The frequent suspensions can have a number of negative consequences for students. According to the National Coalition for Literacy, as many as 36 million Americans lack basic literacy skills. And the frequency in which black students are suspended has been argued by many education activists as a prime example of the institutionalized disenfranchisement of people of color in the United States.
Fitzpatrick, for one, has been quick to characterize the belief that this imbalance had roots in racial discrimination as nonsense, calling it “absurd.”
Fitzpatrick has a complicated history with race, and his actions have repeatedly raised questions among activists and politicians of a possible racial bias.
In 2012, Onondaga County Legislator Linda Ervin spoke out against comments Fitzpatrick made about welfare and single mothers that she believes went too far.
The comments were made in a speech Fitzpatrick gave at a Rotary Club; while taking questions, he was asked about a robbery of a woman by four boys aged 10 to 12.
“His answer was that if we stop making it easy, with public assistance, for single mothers to have more and more babies, we could solve this problem,” Ervin posted on Facebook at the time, according to The Post-Standard.
Fitzpatrick later defended those comments in a separate interview with The Post-Standard.
“The more kids you have, the more money you get, with very, very little tradeoff in terms of the taxpayer having any type of say about education or upbringing or anything like that. And as a result of that system, we wind up with the vast majority of kids that I encounter coming from single or no-parent homes.”
In 2013, Onondaga County Judge Jeffrey DeRoberts voiced his discomfort with the difference between the way Fitzpatrick’s office handled two separate cases where the primary difference between the accused was race. Branden DeGroat, who is white, was offered a significantly more lenient plea deal than Tyler Carter, who was black.
Fitzpatrick again defended the action, attributing the difference as the result of “substantial” differences in the case, again according to The Post-Standard.
His objectivity was again challenged by Black Lives Matter activists Hevre Comeay and Rahzie Seals after Fitzpatrick announced harassment charges against Maurice Crawley in 2016, a black man who had repeatedly video recorded police officers.
Still, the original overhaul to the school district’s disciplinary system has been met with vocal criticism from a number of educators, parents, and members of the community. A recent survey released by the teachers union went as far as to suggest teachers and staff felt helpless against threats and violence from students.
But according to Syracuse schools Superintendent Jaime Alicea, while there are barriers to prevent excessive use of suspensions, it is not prohibited under the current policy.
Alicea said, “we continue to review and monitor our policies and procedures to maintain the safest possible learning environment.”
There are a number of factors that have been linked to increased violence in schools. Widespread poverty and domestic violence are among the leaders; for instance, every year over three million children witness domestic violence at home.
In an interview with Syracuse.com this May, Fitzpatrick said the district “has a serious problem with violence, and I’m very concerned about the safety of teachers, administrators and students.”
He also said that he is ready to sit down with school district officials to discuss solutions. While violence in the schools is a pressing and serious issue, for many parents Fitzpatrick’s reactionary proposal seems like a step backward, not forward.