In a tumultuous year that’s introduced brand-new rules and protocols for students, some advocates want New York City schools to take a kinder approach to kids who may be struggling with discipline.

One area of concern is suspensions, advocates have said, when students have already missed crucial classroom time and academic support during the pandemic.

“The fact that our starting premise is that classroom management or discipline requires removing access to education is a problem. It's a faulty one,” said Toni Smith-Thompson, a senior organizer with the NYCLU who is working on a school suspension moratorium campaign, in a recent interview with Gothamist.

Students also now have to navigate rules about masks and social distancing, which can lead to conflicts with administrators.

“With all the safety precautions of, you know, ‘you can't take off the masks, you have to stay six feet apart,’... I would say there would be a spike in suspensions,” Favour Overo, a sophomore at New Visions Charter High School for the Humanities IV in Rockaway Park, told Gothamist. “Now there are more rules to follow and it's probably going to be more strict.”

One of the new DOE policies is mandatory masks for students to participate in blended learning in-person. Students who don’t comply with repeated requests to wear masks will be enrolled in remote learning only, though the DOE has said the goal is to work with students to avoid that outcome.

“Every member of our school communities has a role to play in keeping kids safe. We’ll rely on our social-emotional learning practices, developed over the past year, to engage students on the importance of wearing a mask. Trauma-informed instruction lies at the heart of our reopening," said DOE spokesperson Nathaniel Styer in an email.

Overo said her previous experiences with being suspended led her to join a coalition of politicians, students and educators on the Urban Youth Collaborative task force to encourage schools to utilize restorative justice techniques instead of stricter disciplinary policies.

“I found that each and every single time that I've been suspended, it's never solved the problem (of) what I was suspended for,” Overo said. “I've been suspended because I use foul language in the vicinity of a staff member. And I just experienced less interest in school whenever I was suspended.”

Smith-Thompson of the NYCLU pointed out that educators and school staff are also under a lot of pressure to keep control this year.

“There's a whole new set of youth behavior or conditions or circumstances in schools where we really don't have a model for how these infractions are going to be viewed, on top of the fact that there's heightened anxiety, people are really concerned about their health. There's a lot of social and political pressure for schools to limit, or really limit the spread of the virus,” she said. “So there's a lot of pressure to really apply a zero-tolerance approach to behavior that is going to be seen as possibly risking transmission.”

The suspension policy also disproportionately affects students who are Black and students with special needs, according to statistics from Brooklyn Community Foundation. Last week, the foundation released the results of a four-year pilot program with a handful of Brooklyn secondary schools and found that in the 2018-2019 school year, Black students received 45% of suspensions even though they represent 26% of the student population at these schools. At 20% of the overall population, students with special needs were also receiving a disproportionate 40% of all suspensions.

“We initiated the Brooklyn Restorative Justice Project to advocate for, and invest in, changes to our education system from within,” said Brooklyn Community Foundation President and CEO Cecilia Clarke in a release about the findings. “Restorative justice offers a powerful tool for transforming the ways our schools value and respect all students, especially Black youth. At this time when our nation is crying out for racial justice and communities of color are reeling from the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools can be lifelines for young people. But to fulfill this promise, we must redesign them with racial justice and equity at their core.”

Overo, the high schooler, said this could be an opportunity to change how schools work with students instead of punishing them.

“Eventually this could be a step in the direction of us phasing out suspensions altogether and kind of going more towards restorative justice and trying to solve issues from a less disciplinary approach,” Overo said.