This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District’s zero-tolerance discipline policy does not make school safer, creates a prison-like culture, costs money – and it keeps students “one minor mistake away from having their life turned upside down,” according to a new report.
Philadelphia schools, it said, rely on punitive measures more than most districts across the country.
The report—by Youth United for Change, a student organizing group; the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization; and Education Law Center, a Philadelphia-based legal advocacy organization – urges a “smarter” approach to discipline in order to dismantle what it calls the “pathway to prison” exacerbated by the policy.
“There may be no other large, urban school system that matches the District in its promotion of zero tolerance and in the heavy use of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, disciplinary transfers to alternative schools, referrals to law enforcement, and school based arrests,” the report said.
A smarter approach would focus on prevention and intervention, such as redirecting money from school police and metal detectors to counselors and social workers, the report said. Its authors found there are more security guards per student in the district than counselors, and that in some schools the imbalance is pronounced.
A smarter policy would also invest more heavily in training teachers and other staff in adolescent development and conflict management, among other techniques, and use a “restorative practices” approach to discipline.
“All the research has shown that zero tolerance is a failed policy,” said Jim Freeman, senior attorney with the Advancement Project. “It has not succeeded in making schools safer or more effective. School districts and state legislators are moving away from zero tolerance, recognizing its devastating effect.
"But Philadelphia is moving in the other direction, with school discipline that is more harsh and more severe.”
Now, in many schools, the report said, the climate is one “in which young people are treated as dropouts – or criminals-in-waiting,” and punished or even arrested for infractions that do not rise to criminality. Data show that of more than 46,000 suspensions in 2008-09, nearly one-third were for the catch-all category of “disruption.”
Students who are excluded from school through suspension fall further behind academically. Plus, high suspension rates do not result in better academic achievement, but the opposite. Schools with the highest suspension rates generally have the lowest achievement and graduation rates, according to the report.
It said students are routinely arrested for petty offenses at school that should not warrant criminal charges. One Philadelphia high school, Lincoln, had more arrests than 17 of the 19 other largest school districts in the state.
“This is not just an educational policy issue. It is a vital question of community health and well-being,” the report said. “As a result of zero-tolerance, there are tens of thousands of students being removed from their schools and sent in to the streets of jails of Philadelphia every year.”
The report was unveiled at a press conference at which YUC members did most of the talking, relating stories that happened to them or others that they said exemplifies harsh and unfair treatment.
Brandon Johnson, 15, said he was expelled from his school when a metal detector found a butter knife in his backpack that he didn’t know was there. He was taken to the local police district and held for 11 hours, he said, and ultimately sent to a privately run discipline school, Ombudsman, where he said the school day is only four hours long and he is not learning much.
School District officials reacted to the findings with a statement saying that its goal is to “ensure students are safe.” It said that out-of-school suspensions have been declining for the past several years.
“Our goal is to educate young people, helping them move into a bright future filled with promise,” the District statement said. “It is certainly not our goal to guide them towards the juvenile or criminal justice system.”
The data show that Black students are expelled at five times the rate of White students. Based on student interviews as well as data, the report concluded that students of color are punished more harshly than White students for the same offenses.
For instance, the report found strikingly different disciplinary consequences for students at Central High, a magnet school with an ethnically diverse student body, compared to FitzSimons High, a neighborhood school where almost all the students are Black.
At Central, of 32 reported incidents involving assault, robbery, theft, threats, arson and possession of a knife, only one resulted in arrest and four in suspension. At FitzSimons, of 103 incidents – most of which were simple assault or disorderly conduct – 51, or half, resulted in arrest and 36 in suspensions.
“These radically different disciplinary practices affect more than just the students being disciplined,” the report said.
The District disputed one of the more shocking findings of the report – that in 2008-09, most of the students expelled from city schools were between 8 and 14 years old, with the most common ages being 11 and 12.
Spokesperson Shana Kemp said that the District doesn’t expel students below the sixth grade and that the average age of the 169 students expelled that year was 15.9. But Freeman, who analyzed the data, said that conclusion was based on information the District gave him.
“We used their data,” he said. “If it’s not right, it’s because the numbers they gave us were not right.”
As high as the expulsion rate was in District schools, expulsions were three-and-a-half times higher in charter schools, based on data from 57 charters, the report said.
The authors said that charter schools “cherry-pick” students, encourage students to leave rather than face expulsion, and “appear to be even more inclined to banish unwanted young people.”
The report suggested action steps at the District, city and state level, including a local task force made up of students, teachers, community members, principals, parents and other stakeholders to “rewrite the District’s discipline policies” with a goal of limiting the use of suspension, expulsion, disciplinary transfers, and referrals to law enforcement.
Several officials appeared at the press conference, including School Reform Commission member Johnny Irizarry, who said that the District was working to make the process more fair and faster so that students aren’t left in limbo for months. He and other SRC members have said that they spend much of their time considering expulsion cases.
Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez said she would hold City Council hearings, and state Assemblyman Tony Payton, a Democrat who represents Frankford, said “The numbers are striking, the trends disturbing and the stories unforgettable.” He said he would “push the School District to revise its processes.”