District downplays punishments in new student code of conduct

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

After years of youth organizing groups making arguments against the District’s “zero-tolerance” policy, members of the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools achieved a victory in August.

The School Reform Commission voted to adopt a new student code of conduct, which gives principals more authority to handle disciplinary cases and puts more emphasis on intervention and prevention rather than punishment.

According to the new guidelines, suspensions, expulsions, and disciplinary transfers are to be used as a last resort. Out-of-school suspensions are no longer permitted for repetitions of low-level infractions, and they are allowed only when in-school interventions are insufficient to address a student’s inappropriate behavior. The code now states that schools must use a range of in-school interventions to deal with bad conduct, including addressing the student in private, clearly communicating the problem behavior, and indicating the specific consequences.

In 2011, the District made a shift in the language of the code when it eliminated the phrase “zero tolerance.” But youth activists were disappointed with the scope of the change, saying more needed to be done to amend policies that relied heavily on the use of police, school security, and out-of-school suspensions to maintain order.

“With the new code of conduct in the school system, for this year I’m hoping that the graduation rates improve and we lower the dropout rate,” said Shania Morris, a Philadelphia Student Union member and a junior at the Academy at Palumbo.

Emphasizing the importance of listening to student voices in discussions about school safety, Morris added, “We should implement restorative practices focusing a lot more on prevention.”