Syracuse City Schools in New York took a stand in 2015 to protect students from what leaders saw as a prejudice in the college application process.
The district stopped releasing the graduates’ disciplinary records to colleges, a practice that continues in many other districts nationwide.
Syracuse schools also had been under pressure from New York’s attorney general to halt the over-suspension of African-Americans and students with special needs, and felt release of the records unfairly harmed their chances of college acceptance.
“I don’t think having a minor behavioral issue in high school is an indicator of whether a student is going to be successful in college” Superintendent Jaime Alicea says.
The change has not created pushback from colleges. Syracuse’s graduation rate has risen to 61 percent over the last few years as it has shifted to restorative justice discipline practices that emphasize fixing mistakes and repairing harm, rather than punitive measures.
The district also has half the disciplinary referrals it used to, while more students are going on to higher ed, says Patty Clark, chief ombudsman and student support officer.
In the past, questions about disciplinary records had dissuaded Syracuse students from completing college applications, Clark says. The question has discouraged college applicants across New York state, according to a study by the Center for Community Alternatives, a nonprofit that works to reduce incarceration rates.
Another problem is that districts have widely varying disciplinary policies. What might merit suspension or even criminal charges for a student in one district could be handled with a restorative justice process in another school system, and therefore never become part of a student’s record.
“Some schools or districts deal with fighting among students as fighting among students” says Marsha Weissman, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Community Alternatives. “But some schools label that as assault and require police intervention.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.