This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Unlike some 11th graders, Kyle Mechin knows exactly what he would like to do after high school.
“I want to go to UCLA film school. I want to be a horror movie director,” he said.
An A and B student at Swenson Arts and Technology High School, Mechin was on his way to achieving his goal. He was taking a digital media arts class to learn filmmaking, and was encouraged by news that a friend who took the same class received a full scholarship to the college of her choice because of her work in that course.
But in September, after being caught with a pair of two-inch scissors in his backpack, Mechin was transferred to Shallcross, a disciplinary school run by Camelot Schools of Pennsylvania. The offense violated the District’s zero-tolerance policy, which says that students cannot bring onto school property materials that could be used as potential weapons. According to Pennsylvania’s Act 26, Mechin’s scissors – with blades smaller than his finger – are considered a weapon.
Mechin said he didn’t know the scissors were in his backpack. His girlfriend had put them there the night before after cleaning out her purse and forgot to retrieve them. Despite many testimonies on his behalf at his hearing and recommendations from teachers affirming his good behavior, Mechin was removed from Swenson.
Since the fall of 2008, the District’s zero-tolerance policies have put hundreds of students on track to expulsion. Questionable cases like Mechin’s are hard to quantify, but not exceptional.
At Shallcross, Mechin completes course work several grades below his own, is allowed only 15 minutes for lunch, has to surrender personal items in plastic bags each day, and is required to “walk in protocol” with his hands behind his back.
After 90 days at Shallcross, Mechin may be allowed to reapply to Swenson. But even if readmitted, he fears his future may have been irrevocably damaged.
“What colleges are going to look at me now?” he lamented.
Philadelphia, like many districts, uses zero-tolerance policies to deter violence and improve school climate. But complaints are growing that flaws in the discipline process are unfairly snagging some students while subjecting too many to long delays and possibly violating their due process rights.
Community Responses to Zero Tolerance, an advocacy group, convened in January in response to the District’s new zero-tolerance policy, said Harold Jordan, a member and community organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“When you have policies like zero tolerance, too often they bring in a certain kind of rigidity that is not appropriate to all situations,” he said.
Since Superintendent Arlene Ackerman tightened zero tolerance in 2008-09, any student who commits a Level 2 offense (as outlined in the Code of Student Conduct) in school, on school property, or during any school-sanctioned activity could face suspension, referral to an alternative school, or expulsion. One big change under Ackerman is that those who commit Level 2 offenses considered to be “zero-tolerance offenses” are automatically suspended with the intent to expel.
Benjamin Wright, regional superintendent for the Alternative Education Region (AER), said “zero-tolerance offenses” are possession of a weapon, possession of drugs or alcohol with intent to distribute or use, assault on school personnel, and aggravated assault on other students.
“Zero tolerance means that the student is deemed a threat to the school and needs to come out right away,” Wright said.
But Wright emphasized that expulsion from the District cannot take place without a formal hearing and then a School Reform Commission vote.
In 2008-09, the SRC considered 193 expulsion cases; 166 students were expelled. This school year, the SRC already has 90 expulsion cases to hear – which include carryovers from last year, advocates claim. But three months into the school year, the SRC had acted on only four of these cases.
Passing through the pipeline
If a student commits a Level 2 offense, the first step is for the principal to investigate the incident, fill out disciplinary forms, and recommend a consequence. A conference is held with the parent, and the regional superintendent reviews all paperwork pertaining to the recommendation. If the recommendation is to transfer the student to an alternative school (see box) or expel, the documents are submitted to AER so a transfer hearing can be scheduled.
Under Pennsylvania law, all hearings involving a possible expulsion must take place within 15 school days of the time a student is notified of the charges. And unless the student presents a danger, the statute requires that a student remain in his regular school in the meantime.
At the hearing, witnesses can testify and the student can bring an attorney. The hearing officer can exonerate the student, order a transfer to an alternative school, or seek expulsion.
If expulsion is recommended, the case is sent to the Office of General Counsel for a second hearing. Expulsion occurs only after a vote by the SRC, which Wright said occurs within two months.
But according to David Lapp, an attorney with the Education Law Center, 11 students represented by the nonprofit last year waited an average of four months for their first hearings and almost six months for the SRC to vote. The District and advocates have disagreed on whether those delays are illegal under the school code.
Lapp said that it is “egregious” that the District puts some students in discipline schools before any hearing takes place.
Jordan agreed, saying, “This notion that you can automatically remove kids without at least doing some preliminary work first is a problem, because it raises questions of fairness and disruption that is created in the kid’s education.”
Chalissa Morrison was transferred in February from West Philadelphia High School to Community Education Partners (CEP), Miller campus, without a hearing after school officials found a steak knife in her book bag.
“The night before I was going home late from my best friend’s house and she put it in there for my protection,” Morrison said. She forgot about it when she went to school the next day.
School personnel immediately called police. Morrison, a mentally gifted student, was put in handcuffs and taken to the 18th Police District, where she sat “and cried” for 14 hours. After her release, she was placed on five days’ suspension. Morrison then returned to West.
“But while I was in class doing my work, the disciplinary person called me out of class and gave me a letter that said I had to go to CEP,” she said.
For five months at the disciplinary school, Morrison rotated between the same four subjects in a setting she described as more like a “prison block” than a learning environment. Her hearing was finally held in June. She was exonerated and reinstated to West, where she is now a senior, but not without a major interruption to her academic career.
“In a lot of our cases, kids get exonerated because it became clear at the hearing that they were not a person that did any violence [or intended to be violent]. But in the meantime, they were out of their regular school for months,” Lapp said.
Rendering a decision
Although discipline recommendations begin at the school level, hearing officers, who work in the AER, determine where students in the pipeline will go.
Eight hearing officers conduct six to seven proceedings per day, poring over discipline referral forms, witness statements, and Behavior Performance Reviews (BPRs), reports that determine whether there is evidence – previously overlooked – that the student should be evaluated on eligibility for special ed services.
Heloise Jettison, AER executive director, said that investigations are conducted prior to the referral packet landing in that office, enabling the hearing officers to be “impartial. We don’t have all this outside stuff.”
Jettison said while the officers are not required to have law degrees, they all have bachelor’s degrees and can decipher the law. She added that most have experience in education and social work, along with “school-based knowledge on the ground with families and children.”
Three of the officers were former Discipline Truancy Liaisons (DTLs), working in the District’s regional offices.
Improving the process
Wright acknowledged that mistakes were made last year regarding kids being placed in discipline schools without a hearing, but said this is no longer happening.
“You have to have a hearing first and permission from your regional superintendent to even request [transfer],” he said.
As for the timeline, Wright said that now, “every kid gets a hearing within 10 days.” To help deal with disciplinary cases the District has streamlined its process with the addition of staff so that students quickly move through the pipeline, Wright said.
Ten DTLs, who last year worked directly with Wright at District headquarters, have now been dispatched to the regions, where they are expected to review the paperwork about an offense and submit it to AER within four days after the incident.
In addition to the eight full-time hearing officers, three others are on call, and five transition liaisons now work in alternative schools to ensure students receive support and preparation to go back to a regular school environment.
Plus, the District has opened two new schools, Philadelphia Learning Academy North and South (see New school), for students who have either been expelled or are awaiting an expulsion hearing.
Lapp credited the District for the improvements, but he cautioned that the use of zero tolerance still can jeopardize the academic careers of good students.
Mechin agreed. “The District should investigate the cases more thoroughly [because] there are probably a lot of good kids getting opportunities taken away for things that weren’t even their fault.”