Stop suspending elementary-age pupils, advocates ask Philly schools

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The Philadelphia School District should permanently prohibit out-of-school suspensions of children through fifth grade, a group of child advocates says, contending the district currently uses exclusion from school at “alarming rates” for its littlest learners.

A coalition of advocates wrote to Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and the School Reform Commission this week asking for the policy change, saying excluding children from school is inappropriate punishment for misbehavior. The district last year halted most suspensions for kindergartners.

Citing the “continuous harm that suspensions cause our youngest learners — who are disproportionately students of color and students with disabilities — and their families,” the coalition, including the Education Law Center, Youth United for Change, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Councilwoman Helen Gym, and Parents United for Public Education, called on officials to act in a letter dated Monday.

For years, schools adopted zero-tolerance policies, using suspensions for a variety of offenses from violence to lesser misbehavior. But the tide has been turning against such practices in many districts.

Most suspensions are for conduct violations, not violent offenses.

Philadelphia, the advocates wrote, should “invest in additional training and resources to support schools as they move away from discriminatory and punitive exclusionary discipline practices and toward practices that promote positive school climates.”

The district is using exclusion from school as a punishment at “alarming rates,” the advocates said.  In 2015-16, it suspended 615 kindergartners, 1,081 first graders, 1,779 second graders, 2,193 third graders, 2,295 fourth graders, and 2,260 fifth graders.

Children who are suspended are disproportionately black students, despite research that shows that black students are not more likely to misbehave. According to federal data, Philadelphia’s black children are 2.65 more times more likely to be suspended, and 3.08 more times more likely to be suspended multiple times than white children, statistics the advocates called “appalling and unacceptable.”

Students with disabilities in Philadelphia are also suspended at higher rates than students without disabilities.

The advocates praised the district for largely halting suspensions of kindergartners, but said that it did not go far enough. They said that some kindergartners were improperly suspended this school year, and asked that their records be amended.

The SRC in August adopted a policy that kindergartners “shall not be suspended unless their actions result in serious bodily injury, and those suspensions shall not be more than three days without an assistant superintendent’s approval.”

Lee Whack, a School District spokesman, said the district had worked toward relying less on suspensions, including curtailing kindergarten suspensions and eliminating suspension for low-level offenses for all students. Its suspension rates have been on the decline.

“We said last year we are considering ending suspensions in additional early grades, and we continue to look at that possibility,” Whack said. “Our goal is to increase the time a student spends in school, because the more time a student spends in school, the greater the likelihood they will read on grade level, graduate, and be prepared for college, career, and life.”

The Caucus of Working Educators, a coalition within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, signed on to the letter. The PFT did not, but Jerry Jordan, its president, said he supported the idea of the ban.

“However, the necessary supports have to be in place to effectively do that,” Jordan said. “You can’t have it working one way in one school and a different set of rules at another school. You can’t have a school that has 1,000 students and one counselor and expect that they’re going to be able to implement it the way that a small elementary school with 300 students would.”

State Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Phila.) has introduced legislation proposing a statewide ban on out-of-school suspensions for children through fifth grade who commit minor infractions.

“When people talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, unintentionally a lot of times the pipeline starts with suspension,” Harris said. 

Harris, who grew up in the city and graduated from Bartram High School, said that he benefited greatly growing up from principals and teachers who would redirect him when he acted out. 

“According to statistics, far often, too many of our young people aren’t experiencing those teachable moments,” Harris said. “I’m not saying there shouldn’t be consequences. But the consequence shouldn’t be withholding education.”

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