Refusing to remove a baseball cap in school or being in the hallway after the late bell rings are not offenses one might expect would land a student in the court system.
But under the current definition of "disorderly conduct" in the Pittsburgh Public Schools Code of Student Conduct, that's what has happened, said Nancy Potter, a staff attorney at the Education Law Center.
School officials do not take every offense coded as disorderly conduct to the local court.
But the problem of a lack of clarity of the difference between "disorderly conduct" and "disruption of school" has been large enough that in 2009-10 and 2010-11, the rate of incidents reported as disorderly conduct was about triple the statewide average, according to an audit released by then-state Auditor General Jack Wagner in January.
Now, the district, along with the Education Law Center, is working to revise the student code of conduct.
By this time next year, a major rewrite is expected.
For now, the board is being asked to approve isolated changes, including language that clarifies the difference between disorderly conduct and disruption of school.
The board is expected to vote June 26.
The new language mirrors the legal definition of disorderly conduct, which includes the "intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof."
It lists situations such as fighting, threatening, unreasonable noise, obscene language and creating a hazardous or physically offensive condition.
The current language for disorderly conduct states "a student shall not act or behave in a way that substantially disrupts the orderly conduct of the school or learning environment or that poses a threat to the health, safety, and/or welfare of students, staff or others. Causing annoyance, alarm or inconvenience is also unacceptable."
It also lists various situations, including "unruly behavior."
Jocelyn Kramer, an attorney for the school district, said that in the past school year, principals have become clear on the difference but the language hadn't been updated.
In 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11, the district reported to the state more than 3,000 disorderly conducts each year, including 3,496 in 2010-11, more than a third of the statewide total.
The Pittsburgh number dropped to 1,548 in 2011-12.
District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said not all incidents coded as "disorderly conduct" resulted in a trip to a magisterial district judge. The district has not compiled a total of those that do go to the local court.
Ms. Potter said the law center, which is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, met with school officials in October.
"They said, 'We want to do better. We want the community to help us do that.' "
She believes the biggest problem behind the high numbers has been the lack of use of "evidence-based solutions to improving school climate."
She said: "Some school buildings do this really well. They have done things like implement schoolwide positive behavior supports with fidelity in a really great way. Other buildings aren't. It's been really inconsistent over the district."
She said another factor is the "move toward zero tolerance and the changes that happened in a knee-jerk reaction to Columbine, not just in Pittsburgh but across the country.
"We saw huge increases in student suspensions, student arrests for really minor infractions."
When students get a summary citation for disorderly conduct, they end up at the district judge's office and miss school.
"Some kids go into the magistrate, plead guilty, pay the fine and they're done. But it's on their criminal record," Ms. Potter said.
If the student can't pay the fine, the case gets sent up to juvenile court for failure to comply.
Some students do community service.
"I think the ultimate effect has been more kids have been exposed to No. 1, having a criminal record ... but No. 2, having that initial contact with the juvenile court system or the magisterial court system.
"We've been hearing from experts around the country for the last decade when kids have that early contact with the court system, that makes them more likely to continue to be engaged in the court system, not only as kids but as they become adults."
The changes also call for principals to establish discipline committees that meet at least monthly, review discipline data and discuss the school's disciplinary climate. Currently, the code calls for such committees to meet as needed.
It also calls for students not to be excluded from school for a Level 1 infraction unless there are "repeated infractions and evidence of prior interventions."
Level 1 includes class cuts, tardiness, minor class disruption, inappropriate personal property, pestering, refusal to participate in class, refusal to comply with reasonable staff directives, failure to prepare for learning activity, inappropriate language or gestures and littering.
Suspensions can have a negative impact on a student's ability to qualify for Pittsburgh Promise scholarships, which require a 2.5 grade point average and 90 percent attendance rate in high school. Suspensions, along with unexcused absences, count against the attendance requirement.
The proposed changes add two items to a list of staff responsibilities:
• "Work to minimize lost class time and exclusionary discipline."
• "Treat students and parents in a respectful manner."
Some other proposed changes would affect how the absences of students who are parents are calculated.
Under the proposal, parenting students could be legally absent if they can present evidence of their child's illness. They also could legally miss school for a professional appointment for their child.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.