Zero tolerance kicks in

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

  • Enrollment in the District’s alternative discipline schools has swelled to over 2,000, and more privately run alternative schools are in the works.
  • With principals ordered to report all serious incidents, assaults are being reported at a rate double that of last year.
  • Younger students are being suspended at unprecedented levels, including 33 kindergartners in the first 43 school days – compared to just one in the same period last year.
  • A 16-year-old student was transferred out of her magnet school for involvement in a fight that took place off of school grounds on a Saturday.

These are a few dramatic signs that major changes have been made in how discipline issues are handled in the School District. New policies, developed by a School Reform Commission task force on safety and by new CEO Paul Vallas, were unveiled in September – along with a new Code of Student Conduct. The Code lays out 14 rules, violations of which are categorized as either "Level I offenses" or more serious "Level II offenses."

Vallas described the policies as "a tough program," but one that provides greater clarity and consistency to all those involved.

"We lay out the policy; we point out the consequences; we implement the disciplinary action once informed of the offense," Vallas explained.

But some argue that these "zero tolerance" policies are too sweeping and are subjecting too many children to disciplinary transfers. The District also faces legal challenges to some of its policies.

"If you have some safeguards in the criminal justice system for second chances, why not in our system?" asked Wendell Harris, chair of the safety and discipline committee of Philadelphia Home and School Council.

Here are some of the major policy changes:

  • CEO Vallas announced that the District is eliminating all discretion in the reporting of incidents by schools. Vallas also indicated that he considered failure to report a disciplinary incident to be sufficient grounds for firing a principal.
  • A new "zero tolerance" policy means that schools also have no discretion in their disciplinary response for certain serious offenses. Placement in an alternative disciplinary program or expulsion from the District are the mandated penalties for students in grades 5-12 found guilty of "Level II" offenses such as possession of a firearm, sale of drugs, sexual assault, or assaults involving a weapon or serious injury. Only for Level I offenses can disciplinary action be handled at the school level. The practice of "lateral transfers" of students from one school to another for disciplinary reasons has been eliminated for student in grades 5 and up.
  • The District is preparing to expand its alternative school options. Vallas has expressed his preference for a large, privately run program called CEP, or Community Education Partners (see CEP: City’s largest disciplinary school adds more students), over the three smaller district-run remedial disciplinary schools: Boone, Miller, and Shallcross. The District’s office for alternative education is reviewing proposals from private providers who are bidding to run alternative school programs that serve students who have been removed from their regular school for serious disciplinary offenses. Bidders were told they must offer a program that is aligned with District and state standards and that provides a variety of behavioral supports for students. New providers could start up as early as January 2003.
  • New language in the Code of Student Conduct says that schools can take disciplinary action for conduct off school grounds if it could affect the safety of students or staff or threaten to cause disruption at school "Students are suddenly discovering that if they beat up a kid after school they’re going to be expelled," Vallas commented. The policy is being challenged in court.
  • A state law, Act 88, makes Philadelphia the only city in the country where juvenile offenders are barred from returning to their regular school when they are discharged from juvenile placements; they must attend a transition program and then go to an alternative discipline school, a "Twilight program," or a G.E.D. program. While Vallas supported recent amendments limiting the scope of the act, he said, "Generally, I support the intent of Act 88.

One related and major initiative is the School District’s new effort to tackle the truancy problem.

Twelve community and faith-based organizations are supervising the city’s first-ever parent truancy officers through a new School District initiative. The program, known as Attendance/Truancy Intervention Prevention Support, or ATIPS, has trained the first of 250 officers to be hired under the program. In December, these officers started their work of calling and visiting families when students are missing school and helping families find needed supports. "I want to keep the violent offenders out of the general schools." Another lawsuit is challenging the constitutionality of the act.

An ounce of prevention

Implementing a "tough discipline policy" has been an initial focus of Vallas, but the CEO has also called for a variety of preventive measures. "There are so many facets to this problem that require multiple solutions," Vallas said. He has even linked his efforts to upgrade facilities to the question of discipline.

"Look at the condition of the schools. Some of the schools are built like maximum security prisons," Vallas commented in a recent interview. "I don’t know what they had against windows."

"Educating students in that kind of environment, all you’re doing is feeding the flames," he explained. "Schools have got to be different; schools have got to be like cathedrals."

A new round of anti-violence program plans announced by Vallas in November included a new 24 credit hour course for beginning teachers on classroom management; parent education programs aimed at young and first-time parents; and a Saturday detention program known as SMART, run by private community-based providers as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions for students with multiple Level I offenses.

Impact of "zero tolerance"

While new reporting practices make it difficult to assess the real impact of the changes, District data show enormous increases in suspensions involving younger students.

The District’s discipline schools and alternative programs do not serve students in grades K-4; students in these grades can be laterally transferred to another school for Level II offenses.

"A transfer to another school is not something to be taken lightly," said Robert Listenbee, chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association. "Children are really wounded by this."

"Zero tolerance policies as they are being implemented are too broad in scope and deny due process rights to children," Listenbee stated.

Gwen Morris, director of alternative education for the District, acknowledged difficulties implementing the disciplinary policies in some cases, such as those involving toy guns or kissing by young children. Morris said the District is involved in a review of the disciplinary data for younger children.

She said the District’s safety and discipline offices are "working with our Early Childhood department to look at developmentally appropriate strategies" for dealing with incidents among younger children.

Wendell Harris, who helps parent deal with the disciplinary process, said he was troubled by cases where young students were charged with weapons offenses involving safety scissors and nail clippers.

"Principals are running very scared and tend to overreact, and they have no discretionary leverage," said Harris.

District discipline policies were "very lax for years," Harris said.

"But we don’t have real prevention and intervention methods in place. These sanctions are just going to result in a lot of kids being placed in special schools," he commented.