Hite tells safety summit: Prevention, not punishment, is key to good school climate

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

Incoming Superintendent William Hite told a roomful of school leaders at the District’s annual leadership summit Monday morning that enforcement of rules is just one piece of school discipline and that "zero tolerance" to him means "a preventive set of strategies," rather than a punishment tool.

"I concluded as a high school principal, a middle school principal, a superintendent, we can’t arrest our way to high student achievement, we can’t suspend our way to high student achievement, we can’t arrest or suspend our way to safer schools," Hite said.

The theme of this year’s three-day summit is school climate and safety, which School Reform Commissioner Lorene Cary said means "transforming school culture."

Cary said that is a deep process that requires engagement on many levels and the willingness of adults to "move from compliance to care" in their understanding and response to student misbehavior.

"Like doctors, we have to vow to do no harm," said Cary, a writer and college professor who chairs the SRC’s Climate and Safety Committee.

The gathering of 500 Philadelphia principals and assistant principals started off with a challenge of sorts — in the form of spoken-word poetry from three students reflecting on their experiences in school.

In her celebrated poem called "When I Become a Teacher," recent Science Leadership Academy graduate Sinnea Douglas said:

Instead of asking my students to adjust to my teaching style
Fawn in silent awe over my genius
I’ll ask them how they learn….

I will teach my students inquiry
Ask them questions about the world around them
Their opinions on issues from health care to the Palestine Wall
I won’t talk at them, but with them
We’ll have discussions and debates
I will challenge them
Ask them how they would tackle issues like budgets cuts
Low reading levels
And school safety…..

Hite called Douglas’ poem, which is on the U.S. Department of Education’s website, "the perfect lesson plan."

Douglas and the other students work with the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement.

Zero tolerance, said Hite, "gets confused with enforcement and consequences. Those things suggest an action as a result of something. What I’m talking about is zero tolerance as a preventive measure and a preventive set of strategies, so we’re actually creating an environment where we don’t need to be looking at enforcement as our only tool in the toolbox to deal with student behavior."

Hite said he looks at zero tolerance as "construction of an environment where respect is the order of the day. I’m not suggesting enforcement is unimportant. … It’s just insufficient."

At a scheduled SRC meeting on Thursday, the student-led Campaign for Nonviolent Schools plans to advocate for a Student Code of Conduct that, among other things, limits the use of out-of-school and in-school suspensions, discretionary reasons for school officials to call police, and referrals to alternative discipline schools. The campaign is also advocating for a code that would require administrators to sign a pledge they will use suspensions as a last resort and "highlights that discipline should be done without removing students from their classes."

Over the three days at the summit, the principals will hear from a variety of national experts on transforming school culture, creating nonviolent environments, coping with trauma, and bullying and anti-harassment training.

Monday’s session was held in a meeting space in the VIP section at Lincoln Financial Field. The summit will continue Tuesday at Fels High School.