This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Starting in September, teachers will not be able to suspend 1st and 2nd graders, except in instances when the child’s behavior results in “serious bodily injury.”
The School Reform Commission last week voted to adopt the policy, expanding the ban on kindergarten suspensions that it enacted in 2016.
It acted in both instances after extensive pressure from advocates, including the Education Law Center, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Student Union, and One Pennsylvania.
“We know how harmful suspensions are, particularly in the younger grades. … Every missed day lessens the likelihood that a student will go on to graduate,” said Education Law Center staff attorney Yvelisse Pelotte, adding that these suspensions were “disproportionately given to students of color, particularly black students, in a way that indicates racial discrimination.”
After implementation of the new policy on kindergarten suspensions two years ago, those suspensions dropped dramatically. More than 600 kindergartners were suspended during the 2015-16 school year, but only 100 were suspended in the 2016-17 school year.
“As with any change, it may take time to see results, but we did see a significant decrease in disciplinary rates for kindergartners,” District spokeswoman Megan Lello said in an email.
The District delayed extending the ban to the 1st and 2nd grades so it could properly train teachers in less punitive disciplinary options, including restorative justice and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS).
“We have been working on climate strategies for the last five years, which includes increasing the number of PBIS schools and providing trauma-informed training for staff (and we will be increasing this work next year),” Lello said. “This work is designed to improve the climate in schools and help with relationship-building among school communities, which is a primary strategy for identifying alternatives to suspension.”
Suspensions, historically, have been used disproportionately to discipline students of color. During the 2016-17 school year, 1,614 suspensions were issued to 1st graders and 1,879 to 2nd graders in District schools. African Americans received almost 80 percent of these suspensions, even though only half of the District students in those grades are African American.
The coalition sought to extend the kindergarten ban to include 1st through 5th grade, but ultimately the District agreed to just 1st and 2nd.
“[S]tudents in kindergarten through 2nd grade are still learning how to control themselves and don’t necessarily understand the impact of their actions. By 3rd and 4th, and certainly 5th grade, students are well-aware that there are repercussions to their actions and are much better at controlling their behavior,” Lello said.
Pelotte expressed dissatisfaction with this rationale, saying, “The District did not go as far as we had initially asked, but that is something that moving forward I think that we will still continue to pursue, because there are hundreds if not thousands of students in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade who are also very young … and those are really important years.”
Pelotte also noted the implications of out-of-school suspensions on parents.
“Every time a child is suspended … [it] causes the parent to have to stay home and puts the entire family in jeopardy,” she said. “Which, in Philadelphia, because of the deep poverty, has a real impact on families that may not have sick days or vacation days.”
ACLU-PA also lobbied hard for the change and collaborated with District officials to promote a smooth implementation.
“An out-of-school suspension for a child in 1st or 2nd grade is incredibly disruptive to the educational process and can have lasting consequences,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of ACLU-PA in a statement. “We applaud the District for taking the next step and expanding the policy.”
Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for ACLU-PA, noted that eliminating suspensions for younger children is recommended by child welfare and child development specialists.
The key, he said, “is effective implementation,” which will hinge on the effectiveness of teacher training in trauma-informed practices and the support they are given in their schools.
The elimination of suspensions for younger children was initially an Obama-era initiative. Under Obama, the U.S. Department of Education issued frequent reports on school disciplinary incidents and highlighted the racial disparities.
Philadelphia is not alone in its elimination of suspensions for younger children. Other major cities, including Pittsburgh, Houston, Dallas, and Seattle, have statutes regulating suspension. Some policies have also been adopted on the state level in Texas and Connecticut.
Disclosure: Harold Jordan is a member of the Notebook board.