SRC bans suspension of kindergartners and students who violate dress code

The changes mark a shift away from "zero tolerance" policies.

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

The School Reform Commission voted Thursday to revise the Student Code of Conduct, banning the suspension of kindergartners and banning the suspension of any student for dress-code violations.

The changes have been supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Philadelphia Student Union, Education Law Center, and Youth United for Change. They will go into effect this school year and remain through Aug. 31, 2021, unless the code is amended or replaced.

“We remain focused on academic achievement, children reading on grade level, and college and career readiness,” said Superintendent William Hite. “The early years are most important, and we need students in school.“

The revised Code of Student Conduct mandates that “kindergartners shall not be suspended unless their actions result in serious bodily injury” and “students may no longer be excluded from school for dress-code violations.”

Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said that he welcomed the revisions, but that he and the other advocates wanted the suspension ban to extend from kindergarten through second grade.

“To me, it’s as important, if not more important, to try to do something about what’s going on in first and second grade,” Jordan said. “Those kids get labeled. They get labeled as bad kids, and that label follows them and it affects their interaction with their peers and with teachers in the elementary grades and their opportunities while they’re in the School District.”

Jordan, who has worked extensively on the “school-to-prison pipeline” issue, is c0-chair of the The Notebook’s board.

Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student services, said that while extending the suspension ban to first and second grades was the District’s goal, more teacher training on conflict resolution and other discipline strategies was required before that could be effectively implemented.

The purpose of the changes is to provide a safe academic climate for students and faculty, while being “clear and explicit” about behavioral expectations, according to a summary of the proposal. The new code reflects a move away from the harsh disciplinary approach known as “zero tolerance” that data show disproportionately affects students of color and those with disabilities.

“We have not seen zero tolerance to be particularly effective,” said Marjorie Neff, chair of the SRC. “Especially for younger students.”

Widespread zero-tolerance policies have contributed to a school-to-prison pipeline by often criminalizing student behavior.

“The research is clear that removing a student from the classroom places that student at risk of entering the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Alex Dutton, an Independence Foundation Fellow with the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.

The changes will make Philadelphia the newest addition to the list of school districts in cities that are ending the suspension of their youngest students. Most of those cities have imposed the ban beyond kindergarten, some going as high as fifth grade.

“We’re in a position now where we can do much more, where the problem of mistreatment of younger kids has been exposed,” Jordan said.

Charter school rulings

The SRC also took action involving several charter schools.

It voted, 4-0, to deny the application from KIPP Philadelphia to open a new K-8 school in the Parkside neighborhood. The charter office recommended the denial based on concerns about when the school would open, adequacy of its organizational capacity, and level of community support.

KIPP Philadelphia CEO Marc Mannella said that he had a waiting list of 3,000 students, including more than 500 for kindergarten. The new school would give preference to students in the zip codes 19131 and 19139.

But DawnLynne Kacer, head of the District’s charter office, said that waiting lists do not constitute evidence of a commitment to attend the new school. She said that among the formal “letters of intent” to enroll, only 17 were from the targeted zip codes.

Mannella disputed that there is not a need for KIPP in the area.

“This unmet need in our community is still profound, and it will not be alleviated by actions other than us opening more schools,” he said.

KIPP operates five schools now in North and West Philadelphia that enroll 1,725 students.

In its application, KIPP offered to delay opening of the school to 2018 as a gesture of good will in working with the District, considering its financial issues, Mannella said. But the SRC used the possibility of a 2018 opening as a reason to deny the application because the charter law specifies that charters must open only in the next school year or the year after.

“I think they found a technicality by which they felt they could deny,” he said.

He said KIPP would pursue one of several avenues open to it to reverse the decision, either submitting a revised application in November or taking the case to the state’s Charter Appeals Board.

The SRC renewed the Russell Byers Charter School’s charter for five years, through 2020, and approved a charter amendment for Boys’ Latin to add a new location. Several other planned charter renewals were pulled from the agenda by the staff.

In other news from the meeting, Hite said that the District had hired more than 700 new teachers and that a lower than usual number are leaving or retiring. As a result, he has hopes of opening this school year with minimal vacancies. More than 500 new teachers attended an orientation earlier this week.

In 2015-16, vacancies persisted throughout the school year, subjecting thousands of students to inconsistent instruction.

“I am proud to say the School District of Philadelphia begins this school year in its strongest position since I became superintendent in 2012,” Hite said.

This is due, he said, to $50 million in additional funding this year from the state, as well as Harrisburg’s consent to continue the city’s cigarette tax past 2019, when it had been due to expire. “The state has given the School District of Philadelphia part of the reliable long-term funding sources we need,” he said.

As a result, the District is planning to make $440 million in “new investments” over five years, including “additional counselors, nurses, new books, laptops to teachers, and modern computer labs.”