#RethinkDiscipline: Students of color with disabilities can’t learn if they’re not in school

Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate at ACLU-PA, offered comment on the harsh discipline of students of color with disabilities in public schools today before the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Here is his statement.

Harold Jordan of ACLU-PA with Catherine E. Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, at today’s briefing on school discipline in Washington, D.C.

Thank you for this opportunity to address the Commission on a matter of great importance to students and families in Pennsylvania, the harsh discipline of students of color with disabilities in our public schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has reviewed discipline and law enforcement data, addressed relevant policy issues, and participated in discussions with school communities and education decision-makers. I’ve had the privilege of serving on a committee of Pennsylvania’s Developmental Disabilities Council, a state agency which has provided grants to programs that address the school-to-prison pipeline’s impact on students with disabilities.

Pennsylvania’s patterns of punishment of students of color with disabilities parallels national trends:

  • Black students with disabilities receive out of school suspensions at the highest rates of any group of students. Some 22 percent of Black students with disabilities were suspended at least once. In fact, the profile of the PA student who is most likely to be suspended is a Black male student with a disability. Black and Latino students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended multiple times than any other group.
  • Roughly a dozen districts suspend between 40 percent and 75 percent of Black students with disabilities.
  • Similar patterns of punishment are reflected in contact with law enforcement and arrest.
  • Overidentification, misidentification and under-identification of students of color remains a significant problem.
  • Also problematic is the failure of schools to conduct manifestation reviews and to provide appropriate individualized education supports.

The result is the excessive punishment of students of color, especially those who have disabilities.

Parents and guardians have great difficulty exercising their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Rehabilitation Act. It is challenging for them to ensure that their children are treated fairly and receive constructive supports and services.

We ask the commission to:

1) Urge the U.S. Department of Education to implement the “Equity in IDEA” rule (significant disproportionality) fully and on schedule.

2) Urge local education agencies to establish protocols that address interactions between law enforcement and students with disabilities. These should:

  • Limit contact between police and students with disabilities. No elementary school student should be handed over to law enforcement.
  • Require any law enforcement working in schools to get extensive training on how to de-escalate conflicts and how to work with youth, and youth with disabilities.
  • Protect the privacy rights of students with disabilities.
  • Require training for school staff on how to better work with students of color with disabilities and de-escalate conflicts, instead of turning to law enforcement to force compliance.

3) Urge state and local education agencies to do more rigorous monitoring of the use restraint and seclusion practices, and to make that information available to the public.

My transgender son is trying to find his way. Politicians aren’t helping.

By Ellen*

I’ll never forget when my son, Jacob, told me that he is transgender. He was 13 years old at the time, and we were out for dinner. As he ate his lobster, he looked at me and said, “Mom, I’m in the wrong shell,” as tears welled in his eyes.

Since his decision to live openly as male, I have done everything that I can to support his healthcare needs, both physical and emotional. We found a pediatrician who has a well-deserved reputation for being supportive of transgender kids, and she has been wonderful. The Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia has also been an irreplaceable resource. He is now 15 and has the healthcare support that he needs.

His social isolation, though, has been a greater struggle. When Jacob came out, he was attending a brick-and-mortar charter school. Being an adolescent is hard enough, but being a transgender teenager is incredibly difficult. We all know that teens can be abominable to one another, and his classmates did not understand Jacob’s experience and gave no indication of interest in understanding what it’s like to be transgender. He had one friend who outed him to others who did not know that he’s trans, which compounded his social anxiety. He now attends a cyber charter school. He has become introverted, uncomfortable with other kids, and friendship with others his age is very difficult for him.

Philadelphia Trans March, October 7, 2017 (photos: Rick Urbanowski Photography)

I celebrate and am grateful for the many trans kids who are able to live their lives openly with support from their families and their friends. I want my son to live the fullest life possible as the person he is, and I hope we’re moving toward a day when transgender people in America are treated with the same respect and dignity as everyone else.

Politicians compound the challenges for transgender youth when they actively pursue discriminatory policies against the trans community. When elected officials use transgender people as a wedge to score cheap political points, it feeds a negative narrative about the lives of trans people, and that narrative is felt acutely by young people.

The Pennsylvania Senate recently engaged in this very kind of underhanded behavior when it passed a bill to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program with a provision that prohibits CHIP coverage of transition-related surgical procedures. This isn’t a benign policy discussion about how expansive CHIP should be. This is an effort to diminish the humanity of trans youth. If it becomes law, this bill would deny coverage of medically necessary and sometimes life-saving medical care for transgender young people. It feels like nothing less than dehumanization of my son and kids like him.

Jacob and I are lucky that we are able to access private health insurance. Unlike our state senators, though, I have a basic level of empathy, and I don’t need the experience of using CHIP to be able to relate to any parent of a transgender child who just wants the best healthcare coverage possible for their kid.

The teenage years are fraught with challenges. And transgender teens face unique hurdles that cisgender kids do not. They don’t need politicians making things worse.

*Ellen and her son live in Lehigh County. She writes using pseudonyms for both herself and her son to protect their privacy.

Who is holding school districts and police departments accountable?

By Harold Jordan, Senior Policy Advocate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Surveillance video showed an interaction between a Woodland Hills High School student and school resource officer Steve Shaulis. Photo via WESA.

Controversy continues to swirl over a series of violent incidents that have occurred in the Woodland Hills School District, just outside Pittsburgh. These incidents involve allegations of violence directed against students by the school’s principal and by school-based law enforcement officials. Students have been injured. In one recent case, one of these law enforcement officials allegedly punched a student in the face and nearly knocked the student’s tooth out. An incident last year led to disciplinary action against the principal, but the principal remains at the school and was even hired as the school’s varsity football coach last month.

These incidents and the responses of administrators and the justice system so far raise fundamental questions about the role of police in our schools. They provide a textbook example of what is wrong with how many districts use police: lack of accountability for the actions of police; inappropriate use of force; failure to respect (and protect) the rights of students; and proposed solutions that may make matters worse.

Woodland Hills’ school-based law enforcement officials are known as “school resource officers” or SROs. These are sworn police officers on loan from a neighboring law enforcement agency as part of a contract between the district and the police department. But who is in control when SROs patrol the hallways? What do the school’s administrators do to protect students from harmful contact with local police? What responsibility does the school administration have when things go wrong between police and students, especially when there is unnecessary physical harm?

Often when controversies arise, police say, Don’t blame us. We’re here because the school asked us to be here. Educators say, We cannot control what police do in our school — that’s a law enforcement matter.

Who is holding districts and police departments accountable? In Woodland Hills, the officer has not been held accountable nor has the Allegheny County District Attorney, Stephen A. Zappala, prosecuted the assault. Last week community members held a protest. “We have some grave concerns about the way justice is carried out, which is why we are standing here today,” said the Rev. Richard Wingfield, pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Braddock, Pennsylvania.

This is a nationwide problem. The degree of collaboration between police and school systems has increased in the past two decades, with more districts placing police in schools on a full-time basis rather than calling them in during genuine emergencies where there is a threat to the well-being of the school community.

The experience of other districts using SROs has been that these officers sometimes engage in searches and interrogations an outside law enforcement officer would not be permitted to conduct without a warrant signed by a judge. Many districts are unsure about when these officers may have access to student records. And districts typically fail to demand that officers not carry or use potentially harmful weapons when dealing with ordinary student conflicts — including the Taser used on a student in a recent incident.

A “solution” being considered by the district is to equip SROs with body cameras. Such a measure would provide no real protections to students but would increase the surveillance of students by police. That would likely lead to more students being criminalized. In the words of one of my ACLU colleagues, “Body cameras present a real threat to students’ privacy and contribute to the creation of an environment in schools of pervasive surveillance…More likely than not, body camera footage is just going to be whipped out left and right for the enforcement of petty rules and disciplinary disturbances.”

Moreover, these arrangements between police and school districts undermine other discipline reform efforts of the district aimed at reducing out-of-school suspensions. Woodland Hills has long had one of the highest suspension rates in the state, especially for black students and black students with disabilities. In recent years, Woodland Hills has undertaken some efforts to reduce suspensions and improve school climate, with the support of AASA — The School Superintendents Association and the Children’s Defense Fund. And like me, district leaders participated in the Obama White House’s “Rethink Discipline” Summit in July of 2015.

But placing police in schools under these arrangements undermines those reform efforts. It has created Woodland Hills’ own version of “whack-a-mole”; police contact increases while the district claims to reform suspension policies.

The Woodland Hills School District has a choice. SRO arrangements are not mandated by law but are based on a contract between local law enforcement and the district. It can refuse to contract with local police, instead committing resources to student support services, or it can place stiff restrictions on police activities and the weapons they are permitted to carry in schools.

In Woodland Hills, the school district and police have become an unholy and unaccountable alliance. The district’s responsibility should be first and foremost to care for the well-being of students.

Read more about schools and the justice system at EndZeroTolerance.org.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Criminal defense lawyer Larry Krasner is the Democratic nominee for Philadelphia district attorney. Photo from Slate.

  • Slate: “Progressives believe Larry Krasner can help fix mass incarceration and hold police accountable. That may be too optimistic.”

“If Krasner wins in November as expected, his next challenge will be tougher than the race itself. Many of the city’s cops and prosecutors despise him, which will make it harder for Krasner to live up to his supporters’ exceedingly high expectations. Ultimately, it’s judges who decide whether to set cash bail, even if it isn’t sought by prosecutors. If Krasner’s deep-pocketed backers had spread a bit of their money down ballot, maybe he would have had a little bit more help from the bench.”

  • ACLU-PA: “Racial Analysis Suggests Philly Police Still Stop Pedestrians Based on Race”

“‘We recognize that the city, under the leadership of Mayor Kenney and Commissioner Ross, has shown improvement, as stops have decreased and legal justification for those stops has increased,’ said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. ‘But improvement is not the goal. The goal is to treat people fairly and to respect people’s constitutional rights. This newest report suggests that some people in Philadelphia are still facing unfair treatment because of their race.’” More from ACLU-PA: “Expert Report Shows Continuing Racial Disparities in Philadelphia Police Department Stops and Frisks”

  • Star-Tribune: “High court has curbed life-without-parole for juveniles, but state case may open new door”

“Notwithstanding these decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court filed an opinion last week upholding Ali’s sentences of three consecutive life terms. In an opinion authored by the newly elected Justice Natalie Hudson, the Minnesota court decided that Miller and Montgomery apply only to single sentences of life without parole, refusing to extend the principles articulated in Miller and Montgomery to consecutive sentences that have the same effect.”

  • Wired: “Zuckerberg-Backed Data Trove Exposes the Injustice of Criminal Justice”

“Measures for Justice launches today with deep data dives on more than 300 county court systems in Washington, Utah, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida, with plans to expand to 20 states by 2020. It pulls together the data that has traditionally remained hidden in ancient databases and endless Excel spreadsheets. Even with just six states included, the comprehensiveness of the platform surpasses anything similar that currently exists. Measures for Justice compiles granular data for 32 different metrics that indicate how equitable a given county’s justice system might be. The portal shows, for instance, how many people within a county plead guilty without a lawyer present, how many non-violent misdemeanor offenders the courts sentence to jail time, and how many people are in jail because they failed to pay bail of less than $500. It offers insight into re-conviction rates and never-prosecuted cases. Users can compare counties or filter information based on how certain measures impact people of different races or income levels. And the site organizes all of it into easily digestible data visualizations.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

The work of defending civil liberties goes on

ACLU of Pennsylvania Executive Director Reggie Shuford addresses the crowd at the “Show Love for the Constitution” event. | February 15, 2017. (credit: Ben Bowens)

Dear supporter,

In some ways, our country changed on November 8. The United States elected a leader who, by all measures, is hostile to the basic foundations and principles that we stand for. President Trump and his regime deserve every ounce of pushback we can gather, and the ACLU will be on the front lines of the resistance.

And yet, at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we have always taken the long view. Issues that are with us today were with us before November 8 and, to one degree or another, would have continued regardless of who was elected, including mass incarceration, police brutality, inequality for gay and transgender people, and efforts to compromise women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

You may have heard that there has been a major increase in giving to the ACLU since the election. While much of that growth has occurred at the national level, in fact, here in Pennsylvania, our membership has tripled. We saw a notable rise in donations after Election Day, but the real surge of giving happened after the weekend of the Muslim Ban. It was in that moment that many Pennsylvanians realized the significance of the threat to our values and to the people we most cherish.

You have put your trust in the ACLU in these challenging times. We are grateful for that trust and take it as a responsibility. Thank you.

The generous outpouring of support we’ve received in recent months has allowed us to think big about our work. It is my intention to add new staff to our existing staff of 22. Our current team has the talent, skills, and persistence to take on the many challenges before us. I also know that we can advance the cause of civil liberties throughout Pennsylvania by bringing even more talented people on board. The times demand it. Your support enables it.

In the months ahead, you’ll hear more about our Smart Justice campaign, our effort to reform, reinvent, and revamp the criminal justice system; our Transgender Public Education and Advocacy Project; the campaign for District Attorney in Philadelphia; the many bills we’re advocating for and against at the state capitol; and more litigation to push back against government excesses wherever they occur.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania is prepared to thwart the Trump administration’s worst instincts as they play out in the commonwealth.

And state and municipal officials aren’t off the hook. We’re working with immigrant communities to monitor federal immigration enforcement tactics while also standing with municipal governments that insist they won’t bend to every demand of ICE. We’re insisting that the commonwealth keeps its commitment to open beds for people who are too ill to stand trial and are being warehoused in local jails. We’re working at the state legislature to defeat efforts to hide the identity of police who seriously injure and kill people and to hide video that captures police brutality from the public. And we are active in ongoing struggles to diminish police presence in schools, to stop rollbacks of women’s reproductive healthcare, and to fight the practice of jailing people for their debts.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has the infrastructure and the experience to defend civil rights at every turn. Consider some of our recent work:

  • Our legal team successfully freed travelers who were detained at Philadelphia International Airport the weekend of Muslim Ban 1.0, our advocacy team supported the protests at airports in Philly and Pittsburgh, and our communications staff echoed the message to #LetThemIn.
  • Two weeks ago, we settled a lawsuit against the School District of Lancaster for denying enrollment at its regular high school for older refugee students. Older refugee students will now be able to attend the regular high school instead of being segregated at an alternative school.
  • Over the last month, our legislative director has been busy at the state capitol in Harrisburg lobbying against efforts to reinstate mandatory minimum sentencing, which has been suspended for two years due to court rulings.
  • In tandem with allies, our advocacy team has launched the Philadelphia Coalition for a Just District Attorney, an effort to push the candidates for district attorney to commit to reforming the criminal justice system.
  • Last week, our lawyers filed to intervene to defend a school in Berks County that has been sued for affirming its students’ gender identity. We’re representing a transgender student and a youth advocacy organization who would be harmed if the lawsuit successfully overturns the school’s practice.

These five examples are just from the last two months. In fact, four of them happened in the last two weeks.

My favorite playwright, Pittsburgh native August Wilson, said this about gratitude in his play Two Trains Running:  “You walking around here with a ten-gallon bucket. Somebody put a little cupful in and you get mad ’cause it’s empty. You can’t go through life carrying a ten-gallon bucket. Get you a little cup. That’s all you need. Get you a little cup and somebody put a bit in and it’s half-full.”

Well, thanks to you, our ten-gallon bucket runneth over.

Onward!

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

When police arrest children

By Harold Jordan, Senior Policy Advocate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Photo from Steven Lane of The Associated Press.

One of the issues that the ACLU has been working on diligently, for years, has been student and youth rights. This week, NBC News aired a series of reports on police in schools.

As a part of the reporting project, many local affiliates are running companion investigatory pieces. Here in Philadelphia, NBC 10 aired a two-segment series on school discipline beginning last night with “Policing Our Schools: Uneven Rates of Discipline in our Region.” It includes an interview with yours truly. The second segment is called “Changing the Narrative on School Discipline.”

The lead-off segment for the national report ran on Sunday, on NBC News with Lester Holt. A longer piece ran on the Today show. The stories feature an ACLU of Missouri client, a 7-year old kid who was handcuffed.

Here is a quick guide to some of the other reports that have aired so far.

  • From NBC News: “Kids in Cuffs: Why Handcuff a Student With a Disability”
  • From NBC Boston: “Off-the-Books Suspensions May Enable Some Schools to Skirt State Law.”
  • From NBC NYC: “Policing the Schools: Minority Students More Likely to Be Suspended or Arrested.”
  • From NBC Bay Area, a six-part series on police in schools: “Arrested at School”

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration enforcement ramps up 287(g), a program that allows local law enforcement to serve as federal immigration agents. Photo from The Atlantic.

  • From The Atlantic: “Donald Trump’s Plan to Outsource Immigration Enforcement to Local Cops”

“Thirty-eight law enforcement agencies are currently collaborating with ICE, according to the government’s latest figures. But a report released by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in December found that the overwhelming majority of the 2,556 counties surveyed didn’t need formal programs: They were already offering assistance to ICE. An early example is the Milwaukee Sheriff’s Department, led by Trump surrogate David Clarke, which teamed up with ICE for a 2-day raid in Wisconsin that ended on the same day that the president signed his executive order enlisting help from local law enforcement. The sheriff’s department has not formally entered agreements to join the 287(g) program. Still, local law enforcement played an active role in arresting 16 undocumented immigrants, all of whom authorities said had previous criminal convictions ranging from assault to drug possession.”

“Even FBI Director James Comey recognized that a lack of data is driving police and citizens further apart. It seems like an issue that should have been addressed ages ago. In fact, it was. In 2000, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), which required police departments to track and report to the U.S. Attorney General the number of civilians who died in police custody or during arrest. Garnering bipartisan support, the law was heralded as a major step forward in the measurement and improvement of police use of force. The result? It took 15 years for the federal government to issue any kind of report on the DCRA’s data. When it did, it showed poor data coverage and quality. Fewer than half of ‘arrest related deaths’ were recorded, and there were major quality issues due to ‘lack of standardized modes for data collection, definitions, scope, participation, and the availability of resources.’”

  • From The Urban Institute: “How Do People in High-Crime, Low-Income Communities View the Police?”

“Residents of these high-crime, heavily disadvantaged communities witness and experience intensive police presence, high rates of incarceration and community supervision, and concentrated violence and question the intent, effectiveness, and equity of the criminal justice system. Indeed, police may carry out aggressive strategies that target quality-of-life infractions and drug-, gun-, and gang-related violence in ways that undermine public confidence. Perhaps not surprisingly, areas with high levels of mistrust tend to be those that are heavily policed, where police use tactics such as pretextual stops that damage their relationship with the people they are charged to protect. The results can be far-reaching: a distrust of the criminal justice system, an unwillingness to cooperate with the police, and a cynical view of the law that can perpetuate crime and victimization.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

Pennsylvania Commission Releases Informative Study of School Discipline

By Harold Jordan, Senior Policy Advocate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has a problem.

According to a recently released report initiated by the state House, “The Commonwealth’s rates of expulsion and out-of-school suspension are higher than the national average. Further, studies have shown that excessively punitive discipline for misbehavior can result in long-term consequences for the children involved, especially the youngest ones… Policies relating to expulsion and out-of-school suspension are those in need of the most scrutiny.”

On October 28, Pennsylvania’s Joint State Government Commission, the research service for the state legislature, released Discipline Policies in Pennsylvania’s Public Schools. The study, a year in the making, was developed at the request of the PA House (House Resolution 540).

The Commission was tasked with doing a comprehensive study of school discipline policies, state laws and regulations and memoranda of understanding between law enforcement and school districts. A focus was to be on the effects of discipline on students with disabilities and those under 12 years of age. Finally, it was asked to make recommendations for policy and legislative reform.

Overall, the report is thoughtful and informed. It nicely complements the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s statewide report, Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Schools.

The report states that PA ranks 20th and 13th in the nation in the percentage of students that are respectively suspended and expelled.

While not a full blueprint for reform, the report offers many important policy recommendations. In my view, the most important ones are these:

  • Minimize the use of exclusionary discipline and law enforcement intervention and move toward a system of evidence- or research-based alternatives.
  • Lower Pennsylvania’s expulsion and out-of-school suspension rates and clarify that expulsion and out-of-school suspension are reserved for only the most serious of offenses.
  • Restrict out-of-school suspensions or expulsions of children under the age of 10 to those circumstances when the discipline is based on conduct that is of a violent or sexual nature that endangers others, and provide services to return the child to the classroom as soon as possible.
  • Change the language of the MOU school districts are required to have with law enforcement to eliminate mention of offenses where notification is discretionary. I’ve long argued that that the current language encourages districts to report incidents they are not legally required to report. The Commission uses a different argument to reach the same conclusion.
  • Use pull-out discipline programs (known as “alternative education for disruptive youth”) sparingly and only for the most disruptive students. Remove from the definition of disruptive “disregard for school authority, including persistent violation of school policy,” as too vague and subjective.
  • Change Act 26 (PA’s zero tolerance law) so that it is much narrower, modeling the federal Gun-Free Schools Act.
  • Adjust the funding formula for state school safety grants, so that a smaller percentage goes to funding School Resource Officers vs. other programs, including those that reduce the use of exclusionary discipline.

The report falls short, though, in how it tackles the epidemic of student arrests and racial disproportionality in discipline. The report fails to mention that PA ranked first in the nation in the rates of student arrest — the ultimate form of exclusion — during the same period in which it ranked well above average in other forms of exclusionary discipline. Also, while it acknowledges racial disproportionality in discipline rates and arrests, it does little to address its possible causes and remedies.

A final irony in the report is that it defines zero tolerance so narrowly that it struggles to explain why suspension and expulsion rates are unacceptably high. The report is correct in identifying as a problem the fact that some districts have added non-firearms infractions to the list of zero tolerance offenses for which there is mandatory exclusion. But this is only one piece of the explanation for the high rates of exclusionary discipline.

“Zero tolerance” has come to refer to the phenomenon of using exclusionary discipline for alleged infractions that aren’t at the level of serious safety concerns involving weapons or significant injury. This expanded meaning is widely accepted, including by groups like The Council of State Governments. With the adoption of zero tolerance approaches came a dramatic rise in the use of out-of-school suspensions for dress code violations, lateness, and a whole host of infractions not involving weapons and not resulting in significant injury.

The lesson is this: If you don’t correctly identify the policies that contribute to these rates, you cannot make the reforms that would be needed to bring them down. This larger “culture of zero tolerance” accounts for much of the racial disparity and for the overall high suspension rates in many districts. Perhaps it is time we broaden the definition of “zero tolerance.”

On a constructive note, the Commission recommends that the Pennsylvania Department of Education increases its monitoring of discipline data and, where problems are identified, be empowered to require districts in question to establish Disciplinary Policy Review Committees. These committees would have 50% their membership be “parents and advocates who are representative of the population subject to disciplinary exclusions and law enforcement referrals.”

The Commission is to be commended for producing an informative report and accompanying draft legislation. Hopefully, lawmakers and school decision makers will engage the serious issues it raises.

Get the full report and executive summary

Originally posted at EndZeroTolerance.org

New Website Explores the School-to-Prison Pipeline and How to End It

By Harold Jordan, Senior Policy Advocate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

endzerotolerance.org is a new website from the ACLU of Pennsylvania

Every day, we hear from advocates, reporters, educators, and students asking questions about how to find the best resources on some aspect of school discipline and policing. Whether from an advocate preparing testimony for a school board meeting or a reporter digging into a story when an incident occurs, folks want to know how to get accurate and up-to-date information and analysis.

Today, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is launching a comprehensive national website on the school-to-prison pipeline, which can be found at both www.s2pp.org and www.endzerotolerance.org.

In crafting the site, we reviewed countless requests for information and documents that have come in, especially since the publication of our report on school discipline and policing in Pennsylvania, Beyond Zero Tolerance.

This site is the place to go to get up-to-date resources and commentary on how to keep young people in school and out of the justice system. It is loaded with presentations and sample materials, and to links to videos, podcasts, policy statements, research reports, and media stories. In a few cases, we have taken official data and produced simplified spreadsheets illustrating a trend.

While reforms have been implemented in a growing number of communities, the culture spawned by “zero tolerance” remains very much alive. Today, “zero tolerance” refers to the array of policies and practices that mandate or facilitate the removal of students from school under a broad range of circumstances, not principally (or just) in response to weapons violations. Therefore, our site is named “End Zero Tolerance.”

Additional features include:

  • Q and A on school discipline and policing
  • Using Data — a guide to how to obtain and use data, plus links to summaries of recent trends
  • Policing in Schools — news and analysis plus information about students arrests and examples of policy reforms
  • Special sections for educators and for advocates on how to implement reforms
  • What’s New –a blog about recent developments and new resources

Whether you want to research the issues, or to learn about successful campaigns and local work to improve school communities, this site is a great place to start.

Lancaster refugee lawsuit: A whistleblower speaks out

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Plaintiffs and their attorneys from ACLU-PA, Education Law Center and Pepper Hamilton, LLC.

Plaintiffs and their attorneys from ACLU-PA, Education Law Center and Pepper Hamilton, LLC.

Elise Chesson hadn’t been working more than a few weeks when she noticed refugee students were having trouble enrolling in the School District of Lancaster. Her testimony Wednesday offered further insights into how older refugee students in Lancaster, Pa. have been diverted away from a local public high school, the J.P. McCaskey Campus, and into Phoenix Academy, a disciplinary school run by private company Camelot Education.

In early December 2015, Chesson began as employment program manager for Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services in Lancaster, Pa. Among her responsibilities were refugee social services; she helped find education and employment options for refugees. That’s when she met 17-year-old Qasin Hassan.

A Somali refugee who’d come to Lancaster, with his family through Cairo, his documents showed that he neither spoke nor read English; Somali and Arabic were his means of communication. And he had no official education records.

When refugees arrive in the U.S., there’s typically a 90-day case management period when caseworkers like Chesson help them settle in, get accustomed to local culture, and acclimate to daily tasks such as going to the bank and buying groceries. Caseworkers are also often responsible for making sure they find a place to work or attend school.

Qasin had been in the U.S. for months and still wasn’t in school. The School District had thus far refused to enroll him.

Chesson took over the case from her colleague in late December and in her first contact with Qasin, school district officials doubled down on their refusal to enroll him. Administrators said, instead, that he should go to the local Literacy Council, a private organization, and take English classes there and get his GED instead.

Part of the reason for this decision, Chesson testified, was that the district official in charge of enrollment thought Qasin’s body language suggested he didn’t want to go to school.

Chesson responded by explaining that cultural barriers and differences might’ve suggested to SDOL administrators that Qasin didn’t want to go to school, but those were likely misinterpretations; Qasin wanted to go to school.

So Chesson continued to push for him. And eventually the district relented. They sent him to Phoenix Academy. Other options were not discussed — including the district’s public high school, McCaskey, which offered more English classes and a program called the “International School” specially tailored for newly arrived immigrants, like Qasin.

Other students in similar situations went to Chesson as well. She observed a pattern: older students with limited English language skills would experience delays being enrolled into SDOL. Or their enrollment would be denied outright. And when people like Chesson would speak out and push to get them enrolled, those kids would be sent to Phoenix Academy.

With a little research, Chesson learned that Phoenix wasn’t optimal. The students-to-teacher ratio at Phoenix was nearly four times the amount at McClaskey, for one. “Highly qualified teachers,” as defined by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, taught 92 percent of McCaskey classes, while 0 percent taught Phoenix classes. Phoenix did not offer Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes, and while 83 percent of McCaskey’s students were “college ready,” none were “college ready” at Phoenix.

Reading these stats, she asked to sit in on an orientation class at Phoenix. What she saw shocked her.

“I would have described it … like a detention center,” Chesson told the court Wednesday. Instead of emphasizing what kids would be taught, administrators emphasized how they would be disciplined — what tactics so-called “behavioral specialists” at the school would use to keep kids in line. They demonstrated “handle with care” tactics — which ended with kids being pressed face first against a “clean wall” with their hands restrained behind their backs. Phoenix administrators demonstrated this to the students at orientation — a gesture that amounted to an open threat.

“This was the first impression these kids were getting,” Chesson testified.

School administrators, she said, emphasized that “this is a school of last resort.”

They also discussed that there is no homework because students can’t bring anything into or out of the school. Girls weren’t even allowed to bring feminine hygiene products.

“Education did not appear to be a focus,” Chesson said.

“I was shocked. I was disappointed that these students who had been through so much were being placed in a school like this,” she said.

“We asked why they couldn’t go to international school at McCaskey,” Chesson said. “They just said, ‘This is how it is.’”

The pattern that had been established with Qasin and Khadidja, a seventeen-year-old refugee from Sudan who had been denied enrollment and then delayed admission to Phoenix for months, continued with more refugee students — delays, enrollment denials, then after extensive advocacy, they were reluctantly placed in Phoenix.

As time passed, Qasin went to school at Phoenix. Not only did he not receive adequate English language instruction, according to Chesson, he also found himself bullied — kids would yell at him, pull his hair, and use racial slurs against him. He eventually decided to stop going to school.

Qasin told her: ‘If you give me a choice between a prison and Phoenix Academy, I’ll choose a prison.”

Chesson is a lead witness in the case against SDOL. After more than two hours of testimony, it was revealed that her job was recently eliminated — and that she continues to advocate for refugee children to get an education, despite not being paid to do so. The district’s defense attorney, Sharon O’Donnell asked her about this — why she was still advocating on behalf of refugee students like Hassan and others when she had no official agency to represent.

“I don’t need an agency to advocate for what I feel is an injustice,” Chesson said.

Rethinking School Discipline

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On Wednesday, July 22, the White House hosted Rethink School Discipline, a national convening and conversation on improving school discipline policies and practices. At the meeting, participants discussed new tools and resources to be released by the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, an interagency initiative launched by the Administration in 2011, along with data and research that underscores the need for further action. School leaders across the country came together to share best practices used to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline by fostering safe, supportive, and productive learning environments that keep kids in school and out of the juvenile justice system.

Harold Jordan, ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Senior Policy Advocate, participated in the summit representing the Dignity in Schools Campaign. He also severed on the planning committee for the event.

Also participating were community stakeholders, including parents, advocates, national professional associations and teachers’ unions, and advocates of discipline reform. In all, about 200 educators were in attendance, including 3-person teams from 43 school districts across the country.

Learn more about the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s school discipline work!

Does Santa Claus visit immigration detention facilities?

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Santa-Claus-Sad-icon

This holiday season, there are 41 children incarcerated at Berks County Residential Center, an immigration detention center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Some of these little detainees are toddlers. The youngest is just one year old. This year they’ll find out whether Santa can make it past security at a federal detention center.

Many of these children came to the United States with their mothers seeking refuge from the horrific violence that they suffered in Central America, and have already passed a “credible fear” determination, meaning there is a good chance that they will be granted asylum, giving them legal status to stay in the U.S.

In past years, the Department of Homeland Security typically would have released these families to stay with relatives in the United States as their immigration cases proceeded. Releasing asylum-seekers makes sense; Toy Drive families seeking asylum don’t need to be put in jail. Rarely do these women and children pose a threat to anyone, and they have every incentive to show up for court to pursue their asylum claims.

But now, instead of releasing these families as they await their asylum hearings, DHS chooses to imprison all of them, shipping them off to one of the newly created federal family detention centers around the country—the Berks Center in Pennsylvania, another facility in Karnes, Texas, and a brand new, larger facility in Dilley, Texas.

The Obama administration adopted this policy of categorically denying release to all asylum-seekers from Central America as “an aggressive deterrence strategy” after an increase this past summer in the number of Central American mothers and children coming to the United States. The idea is that keeping these mothers and children locked up for the duration of their immigration proceedings—no matter how unnecessary, no matter how unfair, no matter how traumatizing—will deter other Central American families from seeking refuge in the United States, reducing the overall number of Central American asylum-seekers. In other words, the 41 children at Berks are pawns.

The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday challenging DHS’s “no-release” deterrence policy as a violation of federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process, both of which prohibit the blanket detention of asylum-seekers for deterrence purposes.

But for the 41 children currently detained at Berks County Residential Center, litigation is far too slow a fix when Christmas is just days away. The children who are old enough to write have written letters to Santa, hopeful that he can bring them a little bit of Christmas joy behind bars.

Rather than leave matters to Santa, I reached out to Carol Anne Donohoe, an immigrants’ rights advocate who represents many of the families detained at the Berks Center, who connected me with the Center’s Recreation Supervisor, Sandy Schlessman, to help Sandy organize a toy drive for the 41 children at Berks. The Berks Toy Drive registry contains a range of age-appropriate gifts approved by the detention center and reflect what many of the children at Berks asked for in their letters to Santa. There is also a toy drive for the children detained at Karnes, Texas, organized by a local church in partnership with Immigration & Customs Enforcement.

Word has already spread around the Berks Center that Santa is coming, and the children are very excited, so please give generously to help brighten their holiday season. At ACLU offices in New York, California, Washington, DC, Texas, and here in Pennsylvania, we’ll be doing our part this December—and all the rest of the year—to ensure that the Berks Center and other federal family detention centers don’t have to become regular stops on Santa’s route.

Molly-Tack-HooperMolly Tack-Hooper started at the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a volunteer legal fellow in 2010-2011 and returned in 2013 as a staff attorney focusing on civil liberties issues arising in Central Pennsylvania and on immigrants’ rights.