This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Youth United for Change, Education Law Center, Caucus of Working Educators, and ACLU of Pennsylvania were among a coalition of advocacy groups that rallied outside District headquarters in April demanding a ban on student suspensions of 1st to 5th graders.
In August, suspensions of kindergarten students were banned for most infractions, except for those that caused “serious bodily injury.” Advocates are calling for a total shift away from this disciplinary method and toward positive behavior supports for young students.
In a letter to Superintendent William Hite and the School Reform Commission, the advocates cited the number of suspensions handed out to kindergarten and elementary students in 2015-16, as well as the issue of racial disparities and a higher rate of suspensions among students with disabilities.
According to the latest Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Safe Schools Report:
615 kindergartners, 1,081 1st graders, 1,770 2nd graders, 2,192 3rd graders,
2,290 4th graders, and 2,260 5th graders were suspended in the District last year.
At a City Council budget hearing in May, Council member Blondell Reynolds Brown introduced a resolution authorizing the Joint City Council Committees on Education and Children and Youth to hold hearings to review the impact of permanently prohibiting the suspension of K-5 students. The resolution, co-sponsored by Council members Helen Gym, Jannie Blackwell, William Greenlee, Brian O’Neill, and Cherelle Parker, passed, but the hearing has not yet been scheduled.
“These suspensions are harming the District’s youngest learners,” said ELC attorney Alex Dutton.
“Suspensions set students on a path toward future discipline, truancy, and school dropout, all of which feed the proverbial school-to-prison pipeline. That this is happening to Black students and students with disabilities the moment they walk into the schoolhouse door is a true injustice.”
Dutton said that ELC had determined that over 93 percent of these suspensions were for subjective conduct offenses that did not involve violence or weapons. Those suspensions translated into a collective loss of more than 10,000 days of instruction for students in the 5th grade and below.
Karyn Lynch, the District’s chief of student support services, said that the District agrees with the goals of the letter and extending the expulsion ban to grade 5 is a goal, but that major policy changes take time.
“We are putting in place supports and preparing our school staff to operate in a different way,” Lynch said.
“We are changing our culture, and a change in our culture doesn’t happen overnight.”