This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School Reform Commission voted Thursday evening to adopt a revised code of conduct that gives principals more discretion in handling disciplinary cases and prevents some infractions from being punished by out-of-school suspensions.
Students and organizers from the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools said that they felt the new code was a good first step but said it could still be improved – especially by putting more emphasis on “restorative practices” rather than punishment.
The new code divides infractions into five categories, from failure to follow classroom rules to weapon possession. Principals are given more discretion to handle most of them with an emphasis on intervention rather than out-of-school suspension or disciplinary transfers.
For the least serious, principals are required to use intervention, and suspension is prohibited. These include failure to follow classroom rules, dress-code violations, failure to carry a hall pass or ID, failure to participate in class, truancy, tardiness and cutting, possession of a cell phone or other electronic device, possession of “other inappropriate personal items,” and profane language or gestures.
There is another group for which out-of-school suspension can be used as a last resort, but intervention is required first. They include public displays of affection, inappropriate use of electronic devices, fighting (two students engaged in “mutual combat” as opposed to simple or aggravated assault), and forgery of an adult’s signature on an important document.
Principals are also given greater discretion for a host of so-called “level three” offenses, which include alteration of grade reporting, destruction or theft of property, harassment and bullying, consensual sexual acts, breaking and entering, threatening students or staff, assault on staff or students, fighting that leads to serious injury, and alcohol and drug possession.
“Level three is where there is the greatest level of change,” said Greg Shannon, deputy in the District’s Office of Hearings and Expulsions, who, along with Assistant General Counsel Rachel Holzman, worked most closely on the changes.
Before, most such offenses received automatic expulsion or assignment to a disciplinary school. “This year, a principal can make a recommendation for a contract with intervention and support a recommendation for a lateral transfer from one neighborhood school to another rather than to a discipline school," said Shannon, a former District principal.
Bringing a weapon to school still requires expulsion under state law.
“We believe the School District is moving in the right direction,” said Yvonne Knight, a student organizer with Youth United for Change. “However, we need to implement restorative practices and have the code reflect those practices.”
Miguel Andrade, a youth organizer with Fuerza, the youth leadership arm of the immigrant advocate group JUNTOS, also applauded the SRC’s action, but said there needed to be more clarity around what infractions led to police intervention. That is especially important for undocumented students, he said.
“We need to have nonviolent schools in our communities that will lead students to college rather than to prison,” he said.
Officials said that such clarification will be included in a memorandum of understanding when the revised code is posted online.
At the request of Chairman Pedro Ramos, the SRC amended the resolution on the spot to include “as soon as practicable” in the adopted code a provision that would accommodate non-gender-conforming youth regarding uniforms and the dress code.
The SRC made the change after Saeda Washington, a graduate of Kensington Business and of Youth United for Change, told of being denied the opportunity to have her class picture taken in a tuxedo instead of a shawl.
“I am here to stress the importance of language” addressing this, said Washington, who was president of her class at the time.
Work on the revised code grew out of the findings of a blue-ribbon commission established to look at school climate after ethnically charged incidents of violence at South Philadelphia High School in 2009. The commission included representatives from the community and students, along with people from law enforcement and organizations that work with youth.
Holzman and Commissioner Lorene Cary, who heads the SRC’s committee on school climate and safety, said that despite the misgivings of some of the speakers about a lack of commitment to restorative practices, the District is moving in that direction.
Restorative practices and restorative justice emphasize having students understand the harm they’ve caused and work to correct it. Other similar approaches include positive behavior supports, peer mediation, and youth court, in which students sit in judgment of peers.
Cary said the District is working on bringing all four types of programs to at least some schools and on establishing an overall culture that emphasizes prevention rather than punishment.
She said this can be expensive in a time of shrinking resources, so the District will also look to form more partnerships with outside organizations.
“There is no more public revenue there; part of what [we] are working very hard on is how to figure out how to get other resources that are available," she said. "There may be more resources here than we have been using or getting access to.”
She cited mentoring and arts programs, which can have huge impacts on students and ultimately on a school’s culture.
In addition, attorney Jody Greenblatt is working as a Stoneleigh Fellow on strategies for improving climate and safety in the schools.