Expelled for inappropriate cell phone use?

Students fear that new District policy could lead to excessive punishment.

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

In August, Youth United for Change members stood in protest when the School Reform Commission voted to approve changes to the student code of conduct. They were ultimately escorted from District headquarters for disrupting the meeting.

The group says that the new policy’s changes to the severity of punishment for students who engage in the "inappropriate use of electronic devices" could lead to overdisciplining students for minor infractions and could push students out of school.

At the meeting, YUC member Linette Soto spoke about a student in Houston who was pinned on the ground by three police officers because she used her cell phone to retrieve updates on her mother’s medical condition. What that school district defined as “inappropriate use” was too vague, Soto suggested, leading to an unsuitable level of discipline.

“Things can happen like that [here] if this policy doesn’t change,” Soto said.

Under the District’s 2014-15 Code of Student Conduct, students who violate the District’s “Use of Electronic Devices” policy could receive a Level 5 discipline measure, the highest level of offense, which can potentially result in a student’s expulsion and removal to a disciplinary school.

The policy on the use of electronic devices, which is separate from the code of conduct, spells out what the District considers to be the permissible use of devices like cell phones, iPods, video game consoles, or laptop computers. It states that devices must be supervised by a professional staff member and have an “educational purpose” that meets the expectations laid out in the code.

Students who violate that policy could be punished in ways that include in-school intervention (including in-school suspension), out-of-school suspension, a contract with intervention or lateral transfer, disciplinary school assignment, or disciplinary school assignment with expulsion referral.

This represents a major expansion in the levels of punishment handed out. In the District’s student code of conduct for the previous year, there were only two levels of discipline for the inappropriate use of an electronic device: in-school interventions and out-of-school suspensions.

Rachel Holzman, the District’s deputy chief of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, contends that the expansion in the levels of punishment allows the District to address behaviors that may not reach the level of, say, harassment or bullying – both of which carry the stiffest punishment under the code of conduct — but are still deemed inappropriate for a school.

“There may be a kid who is doing something that is not a crime, and it’s not harassment and bullying, but it needs to be consequenced — so we need to capture that,” she said.

“The School District has a code of conduct to regulate its behavior and make schools safe, so they may decide to do what they do. But I need a violation [reported] so that principals know how to proceed,” Holzman said.

“We need ‘inappropriate use of electronic device’ to capture whatever it is, regardless, if a child is arrested or goes through the judicial system.”

Community Responses to Zero Tolerance (CRZT), a coalition that includes of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools, the Education Law Center, and the Defender Association of Philadelphia, received a draft of the new code from Holzman this past summer and made suggestions for changes.

Harold Jordan, of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Notebook‘s board chair, described the “student conduct matrix” in the code as “a table of maximum punishment.”

“It’s not really a guide to fairly and appropriately administering discipline, to make schools more peaceful and respectful. It’s rather saying, ‘This is the worst that can happen to you,” Jordan said.

Jordan and other members of the CRZT said that if a cell phone is used to carry out a serious crime, then that crime is already covered by law and other policies.

In a letter to the District, CRZT said: “The inappropriate use of an electronic device that would warrant such serious action would be included in another disruptive behavior already listed in the matrix. On its own, it is a severe punishment for a relatively minor offense. It is broad and overly open to interpretation.”

“Creating a situation where the simple use of a device can carry the stiffest punishment is really opening the door for abuse and arbitrariness,” Jordan said. “The District’s acceptable-use policy is anything but clear. Students have no way of knowing what use might trigger more serious punishment.”

Holzman said the District has a system of checks and balances to ensure that the punishment fits the behavior.

“Files would be rejected if there wasn’t sufficient evidence that the inappropriate use would rise to a level where a discipline transfer was warranted. We do this all the time with code violations. We make distinctions. We look at all the facts,” Holzman said.

“We have parameters, we have rubrics, and we have facts. We are looking to see, was it an appropriate response to that violation or was it way too much?”

Jordan said that since the ’90s, penalties for minor infractions have become harsher across the country, because schools have broadened their definitions of misconduct. One byproduct of that has been a disproportionate disciplining of students of color, an issue that Jordan says must also be addressed.

In January 2014, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts, which raised concern about the “disparate impact” on students of color through policies that “impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation upon any student who commits a specific offense.” Being in possession of a cell phone was one of the offenses identified in the memo.

Holzman and Superintendent William Hite said they are willing to meet with YUC members to address their concerns about changes to the code, but no plans have been made yet.

“[The penalties] have never been about possession of a phone or [for example] the need to use your phone to call your mom when you get on the bus," said Holzman. "Because for the first time we are a ‘bring your own device’ district, where principals can say to their kids, You may bring in a cell phone [or other electronic device], we need to be able to know how to consequence if it is used inappropriately outside of the way we said you could use it, per the electronic device policy.

“We are the Student Rights and Responsibilities Office, so we are here to make sure that everybody gets due process, that we don’t overdiscipline anybody, and that we are carefully looking at every case.”

Payne Schroeder is an intern at the Notebook.