‘Zero tolerance’ is dropped from code of conduct; critics skeptical

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

Opponents of the District’s "zero tolerance" policy scored a victory in September when the District eliminated the phrase from its student code of conduct.

Just how big a victory remains unclear.

The policy, enacted in October 2008 under former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, spurred an increase in student expulsions, igniting opposition from activists who want to see alternatives to punitive disciplinary policies.

Under updated language, student expulsion cases will first go to the newly formed Expulsion Review Committee, an intermediary council of administrators, before they reach the School Reform Commission. That extra layer of discretion is expected to help reduce the number of expulsions and mitigate the amount of time the SRC spends on individual discipline cases, another concern with the old policy.

The eight-member committee consists of six District administrators, SRC Deputy Chief of Staff Nicky Charles, and Assistant General Counsel Rachel Holzman. No parents, students, or community activists sit on the committee.

Though the language has been altered, longtime critics of zero tolerance still question the District’s direction on student disciplinary policy and wonder whether the change will allow for a shift in focus to school climate factors that lead to violence.

"I would characterize it with a question mark," said David Lapp, an attorney at the Education Law Center.

Lapp said he hoped it would at least signal the end of excessive expulsions.

"Removing the language of ‘zero tolerance’ implies that we don’t look at these things blindly, that we do have some discretion," he said.

Harold Jordan, a community organizer with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, echoed Lapp’s skepticism.

"’Zero tolerance’ is not necessarily gone. We’ll have to see what [the change] means, but there’s a larger problem with discipline policy in the District, and we need to address overall school climate," Jordan said.