Are we safe yet?

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

The new zero tolerance discipline policies instituted in the School District this fall mean the District is meting out more, tougher punishments to try to control student behavior. Serious offenses now mandate an automatic transfer to a disciplinary school and no more lateral transfers. Kids coming out of the juvenile justice system must attend an alternative discipline school. Students can be put in a disciplinary school for misbehavior outside of school.

There is no question that new approaches are needed to address discipline problems in the schools here. Violent incidents in schools have scarred far too many children. Often, the perpetrators return to school and repeat the offense. Teachers face a daily battle with classroom disruption. Serious incidents often seem to go unreported.

But it’s rarely pointed out that even prior to this fall, the School District had been going down the road of heightened security and stiffer punishment for some time without a noticeable reversal of the discipline problem.

Three years ago, schools installed metal detectors. The security force has been growing steadily, making many middle and high schools seem more prison-like. The CEP alternative discipline school opened in 2000 and by last spring had enrolled 1,200 students considered too disruptive or dangerous to stay in their regular school. Districtwide, suspensions increased by 20 percent between 2000 and 2002. The total number of reported suspensions rose to over 74,000 during the last school year.

Millions of dollars and thousands of hours have been invested in these strategies, and we still have a school safety crisis.

Do we want to continue down this road? Building more and larger CEPs is a lot like the nation’s prison-building frenzy, which has failed to solve the crime problem. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that the more we build, the more "criminals" we find on our hands.

And these punitive approaches take an immediate, unfair toll. Look at the surge in suspensions, and one immediately sees racial disparities that point to a problem of racial profiling. African American and Latino boys bear the brunt of suspensions. African American boys make up 33 percent of the students in the District but experience more than half of the suspensions. Reports show 584 suspensions of African American males per 1000 in the District last year, and undoubtedly many more suspensions that were unreported. And this was before an inflexible zero tolerance policy was implemented.

The system continues to issue tens of thousands of out-of-school suspensions annually, despite all the lost days of learning that result. The number of suspensions last year was 14 times as great as the recorded number of serious and violent incidents. Suspensions are widely used to address behavior issues that don’t involve violence. The growth in suspensions runs counter to a body of research suggesting that they harm kids academically, even pushing them out of school.

The deeper toll of these punitive approaches is the climate they create in school. A school climate dominated by fear of punishment is a toxic climate for students and staff alike. Constant harping about "bad kids" puts in motion a negative cycle in school that antagonizes and polarizes.

What does a more positive approach to discipline look like? For starters it means not focusing on students’ deficits, but looking at their strengths and how schools can build on them.

In this issue, we feature a number of stories about proactive approaches to preventing discipline problems:

  • Student-led efforts that play a role in analyzing and solving problems of discipline in school through discussion, collaboration, and organizing.
  • Teachers who focus on the importance of an effective and engaging curriculum in keeping students involved in school and create a classroom environment where students talk about classroom rules and feel that they have a say.
  • Non-teaching assistants who understand that they can command respect and influence students’ behavior if they show they care about and advocate for the students in their building.

A common element in all these positive approaches to discipline is that they are premised on respect for students as an integral component of the school community and a belief that students’ feelings and opinions must be heard. None of these approaches means that schools are relinquishing control to students. Rather, students and their schools are cooperating in establishing reasonable limits and boundaries on student behavior.

Much more needs to be done. Students need smaller classes, more opportunities for individualized attention, and more counselors and other adults available to talk about problems. Many Philadelphia schools, particularly middle and high schools, are so big that it is difficult to create a caring community. The CEO’s plan to build more and smaller high schools is a first step in addressing that problem. We also need an expansion of programs focused on addressing issues like preventing violence, bullying, and sexual harassment.

It’s time to halt the build-up of the punishment apparatus and start redirecting resources toward making schools more humane learning environments.