This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission is working on a new discipline policy in the wake of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s decision to revive the practice of expelling students who assault other students or staff, incite violence, or come to school with a weapon.
Ackerman announced the change in October at the urging of state Safe Schools Advocate Jack Stollsteimer, who maintained that the District was sending the wrong message by failing to use the right to expel given by the state. A safety task force he headed with Chief Safety Executive James Golden recommended the new policy.
The District stopped expelling students at least four years ago, instead transferring those who commit violent offenses to a growing network of privately managed “alternative” discipline schools.
In October, Ackerman sent a letter home to parents “reminding students of the District’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards violence of any kind.” At the SRC meeting unveiling the policy, she said, “We mean business.” Mayor Nutter attended the meeting and announced his support of the new stance.
The SRC is still sorting out the practical effects of the new policy and how it should be framed. Expulsion involves a more formal legal process than does a disciplinary transfer, but the end result is likely to be similar for students who previously had been sent to alternative schools or, if the offense warrants it, went through the criminal justice system.
“In terms of the student’s education, nobody is being expelled to the street,” said General Counsel Sherry A. Swirsky.
Under state law, students referred for expulsion are first suspended for up to 10 days and have a right to a hearing with counsel. If a student is expelled, parents get 30 days to find another educational placement. If they do not, the District is still responsible for the student’s education.
Explaining the forthcoming SRC policy at a Nov. 12 press briefing, chair Sandra Dungee Glenn said, “The commission … want[s] to clarify basically our commitment to educating these children in alternative settings.
“In our expulsion, it is expelling out of our regular schools into mandated alternative settings. We wanted that to be explicit,” Dungee Glenn said.
She added that with its new policy, the SRC “wants to take a step back and … speak to a kind of overall broader philosophy, if you would, around school safety, climate, student behavior, and conduct.”
The expulsion mandate took several advocacy groups by surprise.
“Whenever you go to zero-tolerance, you end up capturing some kids in the net who should not be captured,” said Jenny Lowman, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center.
Some advocates said the shift undercut a movement towards investment in positive behavioral supports and intervention. An Alternative Education Task Force that met last year “thought we were reshaping services around behavior and disruptions into a more thoughtful structure instead of a more punitive structure,” said Sheila Simmons of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a task force member.
The District later sent a “clarifying fact sheet on zero tolerance” to school principals that was more specific about the definition of weapon and said that fights will merit expulsion only if the police charge the student with aggravated assault. The memo also said that while principals have the ability to suspend for 10 days, they should not do so in every case. It emphasizes the need to send schoolwork home for students on suspension.
The final decision on expulsion is made by the SRC after a full hearing, and the expulsion hearing can be ordered only by Ackerman or her designee – the regional superintendent for alternative schools, Benjamin Wright. Until that determination is made, the memo said, “It is premature and inaccurate for the principals to be telling kids they are expelled.”
Swirsky said that one student has already had an expulsion hearing, two more have been referred, and there are five additional cases in the pipeline. She said her office has estimated that there would be five to 10 hearings a month.
The District did not make Wright available for an interview.