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The zero-tolerance debate

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

Recently Youth United for Change released a report on zero tolerance that concluded this policy was ineffective in creating safe schools that nurture learning. It also argues that zero tolerance criminalizes youth and disproportionately punishes students of color.

Chris Paslay, a teacher, blogger, and frequent contributor to the Inquirer op-ed page, has been a vocal critic of the report. Writing in the January 28 Inquirer, Paslay suggests that District policies are “quite tolerant” and a choice must be made between making schools “shelters for troubled children”, or “institutions of learning where hardworking children can get an education.”

Significantly, Paslay does not deal with the data the report assembles that paint a picture of a school system that, more than in the past, and more than any other district in the state, relies on police and beefed up school security, out of school suspension, and placements in disciplinary schools to maintain order. He does not deal with the correlation between high rates of suspension and poor academic performance. Nor does he deal with the evidence that discipline in Philadelphia schools is racialized and that African American students are more likely to be harshly punished than their white counterparts for the same behavior.

To cite just a few of the facts in the report:

  • Philadelphia students are twice as likely as students elsewhere in the state to be arrested for the same behavior.
  • In 2005-06 police were called in 17 percent of student-on-student assaults. In 2009 police were called in 42 percent of these cases. The same trend was evident in all categories of incidents.
  • Philadelphia has 10 times the number of school security personnel per capita than the average for the rest of the state and three times as many as the average for the state’s 19 largest districts.
  • A survey of 25 elementary schools found that police were 58 percent more likely to be called for student-on-student assaults at schools where the population is mostly students of color than in schools with a high proportion of White students. African American students are suspended at two and half times the rate of White students, and expelled at five times the rate of Whites.
  • In 2008-09 there were 43,350 out-of-school suspensions in Philadelphia. Students are suspended at a rate three times greater than the rest of the state. There has been a dramatic spike in 10-day suspensions, from 40 in 2005-06 to 1,078 two years later.
  • In 2008-09 there were 417 suspensions of kindergarten students, a 70 percent increase.
  • The largest number of expulsions were of 11 year olds.

In the view of many students interviewed for this report, their schools are hostile and unwelcoming places where they are given little in the way of respect and encouragement. While the student surveys are not a scientific polling of student opinion, they are, nevertheless, disturbing.

Paslay’s article presents us with a false choice – shelters for troubled children or schools for the hardworking and well behaved. First it’s important to note that the School District’s priorities don’t fit the image of coddling the troubled at the expense of the “good” students.

We spend huge amounts on school security – in fact, more than any other District statewide and even those with comparable numbers of serious incidents – while spending much less on expanding social services that could address troubling behavior.

The report notes, “The funds spent on school security are substantially more than what is spent on school nurses/health practitioners, nearly double the expenditures for parent and community support, and over three times as much as the amount spent on school psychologists.”

We do not have two distinct populations: one “troubled”, the other, hard working and well behaved. Instead, there is an enormously diverse population of learners, almost all of whom, given the right circumstances, supports, and constraints, can be productive and successful. The democratic function of public education is to make sure that opportunity is there for all.

Admittedly, this challenge is not easily met. Present policy, at least as seen from the perspective of many teachers and students as well, manages to be both repressive and permissive at the same time. While the report documents many cases of arbitrary and harsh treatment for relatively minor infractions, many teachers are also frustrated because students frequently face no consequences for behaviors that range from persistent disruption of the classroom to more serious violations, including assault. Paslay is right to argue that this also has consequences that threaten student learning, and in some instances, safety as well.

This seeming contradiction is, in some part, an expression of schizophrenic District policy. On the one hand administrators are under pressure to follow zero-tolerance mandates, and on the other, they are expected to reduce the number of serious incidents, suspensions etc. But more importantly, many schools are simply overwhelmed, lacking the collective will and understanding as well as the resources to create a school climate that respects students and supports learning.

The YUC report offers a clear alternative to the present policy spelled out in eight specific recommendations, including the collaboration of parents, students, educators, and elected officials in developing policy. Among other things it calls for implementation of “evidence-based practices, such as restorative justice or restorative practices, in all schools.”

This approach, which emphasizes developing relationships based on mutual trust and respect, has been employed successfully in many schools and communities, and was widely regarded as bringing about improvements at West Philadelphia High. This, along with the other recommended policy changes, provide a road map that can take us to a more effective and equitable discipline policy.

The author is a charter member of the YUC Board.