In a special meeting Monday, the board of Pittsburgh Public Schools approved changes to the Code of Student Conduct that are aimed at replacing zero tolerance with more discretion, incorporating ideas from a student-proposed bill of rights, and explicitly providing protection for students for sexual orientation and gender identity expression.
The board had been scheduled to vote on the proposed revisions last month, but the administration pulled the item from the agenda after board members said they wanted to discuss the code more thoroughly.
The vote was 8-0, with board member Mark Brentley Sr. absent. The final vote included an amendment proposed by board member Cynthia Falls, who had the word “substantial” removed in describing intentional property damage. She also won approval for altering the definition of assault to more closely mirror the legal definition.
Some of the changes in the code emphasize progressive discipline aimed at improving behavior and keeping students in school.
The revised wording notes: “Positive discipline such as in-school interventions ranging from positive behavior supports, peer mediation, behavioral contracts, referrals to the Student Assistance Program and other interventions shall be exhausted when appropriate before imposing a suspension or expulsion.”
Dara Ware Allen, assistant superintendent of student support services, said one of the goals of the revisions is to see that isolated Level 1 infractions — such as the dress code — do not result in out-of-school suspensions.
Criminal charges no longer are mandated in assault cases, although they still could be filed.
In a section noting students shall not fight to settle disputes, the revised version suggests: “Students experiencing disputes or conflict should contact the school counselor or social worker to learn about services available, including peer mediation and school counseling, to help resolve conflict and work through disputes.”
Another change resulted in the statement that “no student shall engage in harassment on the basis of known or perceived gender, age, race, color, sexual orientation, gender identity expression, national origin, religion, disability, socioeconomic status or political belief.”
Last year, members of TeenBloc of A+ Schools, an education advocacy organization, proposed a 10-point student bill of rights. The revisions incorporate some of the points they made, including one revision stating “students have the right to a positive and inclusive learning environment that feels safe, respectful and welcoming for all students.”
In addition to Ms. Falls’ amendment, discussion of the proposals also focused on a section that states that students who are suspended from school have the “right to access and complete regular academic work during suspension without penalty.”
Board member Regina Holley said it’s important to reinforce that with school staff, saying that is a sticking point for some staff members.
Board member Terry Kennedy was concerned students be given enough time to do the work, but the board decided to leave the amount of time at the discretion of school staff.
Board member Sylvia Wilson said the code has been applied inconsistently across the district in some cases. “Everything cannot be in the code of student conduct, but there should be consistency across the school district,” she said.
Ms. Falls had wanted the vote to be conditional on the board reading a final copy with her amendment in it, but she reluctantly agreed to the vote being final after school superintendent Linda Lane pledged the changes would be made.
Other revisions, some of which clarify policies already in effect in at least some schools, include:
• A statement that students may dress, within the constraints of the code, “in accordance with their stated gender identity and/or expression.”
• Clarification that students younger than 21 may re-enroll in school even if they have dropped out.
• Details on due process rights available to parents before an alternative education placement.
• Communication about discipline in the student’s and parent’s preferred language.
• Documentation of suspensions.
• Possibility of applying to expunge the record of a student who has been recommended for expulsion and was granted clemency.
• More timely notification to parents of certain disciplinary actions and the availability of behavioral interventions and supports.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.