This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
In the name of increasing school safety, a state law passed this summer will push thousands of juvenile ex-offenders in Philadelphia into alternative "discipline" schools, regardless of their individual circumstances, civil rights advocates say.
This Pennsylvania law is perhaps the most sweeping of several new get-tough measures designed in response to persistent and widespread problems of violence and disruption in Philadelphia schools.
Sponsored by state House Majority Leader John Perzel, the new measure, Act 88, mandates that all students in Philadelphia who are on probation or are coming out of a
placement in a juvenile facility or prison must be evaluated at a transition center and then attend an alternative educational program.
Approved alternative placements include the District’s discipline schools (including CEP, a school privately run by Community Education Partners Inc.), twilight schools, or GED programs.
Perzel maintains that ex-offenders do not belong in a traditional school setting.
Reports indicate that the School District’s implementation of the new law has focused exclusively on the transition into alternative programs for students coming out of juvenile facilities. More than 1,000 young people are released from these delinquency placements into the school system each year.
But there are an estimated 5,000 school-aged youth on probation in Philadelphia, and the vast majority currently attend a regular public school. By law they all must now go through the transition center and then spend time in an alternative program.
The law does not distinguish between violent and nonviolent offenders, nor does it consider a student’s history in the school system or the professional judgment of the staff at the transition center, critics point out.
"It covers kids who commit the most minor offenses to the most serious offenses without rhyme or reason as to the connection between their offense history and their ability to function appropriately or productively in a regular public school classroom setting," said Marsha Levick, legal director of the Juvenile Law Center.
"This statute specifically targets Philadelphia kids, regardless of the fact that there are kids adjudicated delinquent in all the 66 other counties," added Levick.
"For younger students, this is particularly harsh because the alternative programs that do exist are primarily for high school students," added Robert Listenbee, chief of the Juvenile Unit of the Defender Association
Marjorie Moss of the Defender Association cited instances of students skateboarding at Penn’s Landing or playing in an empty lot that may lead to charges of trespassing or destruction of property – and now could result in expulsion from their school as well.
"A lot of these are instances of kids being kids. They’re not violent offenders," she explained.
District CEO Paul Vallas acknowledged the new law’s alternative placement requirement but commented, "There is a little flexibility when it comes to nonviolent offenders."
"If we have a student who is nonviolent and has never had a history of violence, perhaps something other than an alternative school setting is appropriate," he added.
Advocacy groups countered that the law does not provide flexibility, and that all students currently coming out of delinquency placements are being channeled to alternative schools.
The District does not currently have alternative programs with the capacity to house and educate the thousands of students believed to be affected by the law.
With additional funding provided by the state, the District is adding 400 slots at CEP targeted for students coming out of the juvenile justice system, but Vallas said the District would be looking for additional providers.
Listenbee argued that alternative schools would not fit the academic needs of many of the affected students. "Many of them are college-bound as they come back from strong programs. There is no reason why they should be segregated off. They are not disruptive; they are not violent; they are not causing problems."
Racial bias feared
Nationally, concern has been growing about racial disparities resulting from "zero tolerance" discipline policies, and critics of the new law echo that concern.
"It’s going to have an enormous impact on children of color," Listenbee said of the new law.
Levick added, "African-American kids are disproportionately represented, according to their numbers in the population, in the Philadelphia delinquency system."A look at the national landscape helps to put this in perspective.
Building Blocks for Youth, a youth advocacy organization, reported that "African American youth are more likely to be formally charged in juvenile court than white youth, even when referred for the same offense."
Philadelphia has not taken aggressive enough preventive steps to keep youth who commit minor offenses out of the justice system, Listenbee said. "We must find ways of replicating some of the experiments that are going on to reduce disproportionate minority confinement," he commented.
Lancaster is a site of one experiment that Listenbee found noteworthy. He said large numbers of youths "are diverted out of the juvenile justice system through programs that are instituted by the probation department."
"Now those same kids if they are in Philadelphia County will end up adjudicated delinquent and removed from schools," he added.
"What we’re talking about here is second chances," Listenbee noted. "There are a lot of people who have gotten second chances."
But this fall, regular school is no longer a possibility for offenders coming out of a juvenile facility.
Commenting on calls his office has received, Len Rieser of the Education Law Center, said, "Families have been told that no matter what the child’s record is, they’re going to have to go to an alternative school." He added that complaints were also coming from students ready to re-enter the school system who have had to wait weeks before they can be seen at the transition center.
Listenbee called upon state officials to "make the law less Draconian." Legal challenges to the law are likely.