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

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!

Harold Jordan on WHYY’s Radio Times

ACLU of Pennsylvania Community Organizer Harold Jordan stopped by WHYY’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane to discuss “racial disparities in school discipline.”

Check out the full interview here:

From WHYY:

New information released by the Department of Education shed more light on a disturbing difference when it comes to school discipline — minority students are suspended at a much higher rate than white students. The same applies to expulsions and harsher punishments and the problem is particularly acute in Pennsylvania. With more research to show that zero tolerance policies are ineffective, some educators are rethinking the whys and hows of school discipline. In this hour of Radio Times we’ll talk about the issues around suspensions, expulsions and even arrests, particularly when it comes to minority students. Our guests are HAROLD JORDAN of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, DEBORAH KLEHR of the Education Law Center, and University of Pennsylvania education professor MATTHEW STEINBERG. – See more at: http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2014/03/31/racial-disparities-in-school-discipline/#sthash.4lewHTdD.dpuf

Zero Tolerance: A Student’s Perspective

By Mykal Washington, Intern, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Mykal Washington, sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus

Mykal Washington, sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus

In my fifteen years of living, it is only now that I realize that I and countless others are being victimized by a policy known as “zero tolerance.” Zero tolerance policies use predetermined punishments for specific violations and dishes out those punishments, completely disregarding the severity of the offense. A student could have politely disagreed with a teacher or said “no” in response to something a teacher instructed him to do. But it matters not because under zero tolerance policy, any challenge to a teacher is to be met with an automatic suspension.

A teen’s education is nothing to be trifled with. Minor offenses should not cause a student to miss school because it interferes with something precious – their education. The system of predetermined punishment, a.k.a. zero tolerance, does exactly this. Does this contribute to the learning process? School is supposed to be a place where children from all walks of life come to learn and further their knowledge. Mistakes allow us to recognize our faults and wrongdoings, thus bettering us as people and individuals. To punish us for every little mistake we make is to prevent us from growing. Children need to learn from their mistakes, rather than be removed from a learning environment.

This constant feeling of being watched for every move you make becomes stressful rather fast. It makes me, and I’m pretty sure a great deal of other students, feel as though school is our enemy, thus not encouraging us to be enthusiastic about attending. Is this the true purpose of the school system? At my school, Mastery Charter School Lenfest Campus, there are a number of different methods to mete out punishments, with the most prominent being the demerit system. Students at my school are required to carry around a demerit card with our school ID badges. The card lists categories of trivial and minor violations ranging from chewing gum, improper uniform (like having your shirt untucked), disruption, lateness, body language, language, disrespect, environment (e.g. leaving a workspace unkempt), integrity, and being unprepared. This long list puts students in a constant state of high alert, making us wary of every single thing we do. In my opinion offenses as trivial as simply saying “no” to teachers or disagreeing with them are not offenses worthy of a missed day of education. To my peers and me, this situation is absolutely unacceptable. It is sending a message to the world that education takes a back seat to talking back, that education takes a back seat to throwing a paper ball across the room, that education takes a back seat to an untucked shirt.

Besides these categories there is a wide range of offenses that “warrant” even greater punishment, like suspension, and I would know, considering I committed one. I was in 9th grade, and a fellow student and I were heatedly debating something when he suddenly threw a paper plate at me (we were at lunch). My first instinct was to throw the plate back, which I did. In the following moments I was swiftly suspended and missed a total of two days from my education due to throwing a harmless piece of styrofoam which traveled less than a foot across the table. The point of this anecdote is to illustrate the negative effect zero tolerance is having on students: while attempting to get an education we are being deprived of it for trivial reasons. Zero tolerance instills in us a fear of being suspended or expelled, which leads to us growing even greater disdain for school.

We are on high alert all the time – it’s not like we’re on a submarine in wartime – we’re kids going to school. It feels like the school is against us, that we’re in an adversarial relationship, which is the opposite of what school should be. How can we be inspired in this environment? How can we give our best? How can we believe that schools and staff wish great things for us? It is my belief that we learn better when we make mistakes.

Education is an opportunity to learn new things and to better one’s self as an individual. Education is an opportunity to advance in life and to broaden one’s horizons. School is supposed to be an environment where this opportunity is cultivated to its fullest potential. School is supposed to be an institution where the opportunity of education is pushed beyond its limits to constantly set new ones. So why is it that schools are attempting to deprive children, well deserving children of an education? The zero tolerance policies must be stopped for the sake of our children – our future. If not, disastrous results await us,. It will be far too late to repair the underlying problem.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

# # #

Mykal Washington is a sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus and aspires to a career in writing. He is interning this semester at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Since When is it Criminal to be a Kid?

By Maheen Kaleem, Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Classroom

Imagine yourself as an adolescent. A fellow classmate who has been annoying you the whole year finally goes too far—he talks about your girlfriend. As a response, you use profanity, and you and the classmate start yelling at each other. Are you disrupting the classroom? Of course. The teacher hears the two of you. Instead of pulling both of you aside to have a conversation, or sending you to the principal’s office, he summons a police officer from the hallway.

That police officer has three options. He can take you to school authorities and assist the principal in determining what school discipline consequences you will face. He can arrest you and charge you with a misdemeanor or a felony. If your actions are too minor to fit within the definition of a misdemeanor or felony under the Pennsylvania Criminal Code, the police officer can issue you a citation for “disorderly conduct.”

In Pennsylvania, “disorderly conduct” is a summary offense. It is the lowest grade of crime, and if you are a minor, you cannot be imprisoned for a summary offense. Sounds like it’s not that a big deal, right? Until you find out that in addition to being suspended, you have to go to court and you have to pay a fine. You aren’t going to juvenile court because summary offenses are heard in adult court. You don’t have an automatic right to an attorney. It is just you, a teenager, your parent, and the judge in adult court. And it is your word against a police officer’s. You and your family can be ordered to pay fines as high as $300. If you are found guilty, the incident will stay on your record as an adult criminal conviction.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania recently issued a report, “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools,” which shows that black and Latino youth are at a disproportionate risk of being removed from school through suspension, expulsion and contact with law enforcement. Once students have one contact with the criminal justice system, they are likely to have further contact. They become alienated from school because of the stigma that comes with being system-involved, some drop out altogether. Convictions for summary offenses create an adult criminal record that later becomes a barrier to accessing higher education and obtaining employment.

Law enforcement officers throughout the commonwealth are issuing citations to students for catchall summary offenses such as disorderly conduct, harassment, and criminal mischief. Study upon study show that these low-level, non-violent acts are characteristic of normal adolescent behavior. Some examples of summary citations include a female student who was cited for telling a fellow student to “f-off” after he had been making inappropriate comments to her, and a student who was running in the hallway and accidentally ran into a teacher. Should this behavior be tolerated in a classroom or school setting? Maybe not. Does this mean that the student deserves an adult criminal conviction on their record? Absolutely not.

A magisterial judge in Pittsburgh recently spoke out against a new Pittsburgh Public Schools policy requiring that all summary citations be approved by the chief of school police before being issued. The judge claimed that sending students to his courtroom was a way to preserve school safety, because appearing in criminal court might “scare” students into compliance. This is the wrong approach. Summary citations are not issued for behaviors that pose a threat to school safety, and they are not issued in any consistent manner. Policies like the one in Pittsburgh decrease the number of citations issued for minor behaviors—they do not prevent school officials or law enforcement from taking all necessary measures to protect the school community.

School is where we learn how to interact with the rest of the world. Children make mistakes. Our first reaction should not be to push certain students out of school and into the justice system. If our goal is to keep our communities safe, we should work harder to keep our youth in school, and to teach all of our students how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

# # #

Maheen Kaleem joined the ACLU-PA in August of 2013. Maheen recently received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in May of 2013 and her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She has worked on a number of issues related to the women’s rights and racial justice, with a particular emphasis on the rights of incarcerated women and children, and a special focus on the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system.