Advocates continue calls for suspension reform in Pittsburgh Public Schools
February 20, 2017 9:01 PM
By Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Advocates renewed calls Monday for a new approach to how the city school district disciplines its youngest students, a matter the school board president called a “primary goal” to address.
Representatives from the Education Rights Network and the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy group, and parents asked again this year for an end to out-of-school suspensions or expulsions for nonviolent conduct for students in preschool through fifth grade in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
“We know both from our data and our experience that students of color and students with disabilities are still disproportionately excluded from [PPS],” even though children of color are not more prone to misbehavior, said Cheryl Kleiman, staff attorney at the Education Law Center in her testimony at the board’s regular public hearing Monday night.
“We must stop excluding our youngest learners … especially at critical development stages.”
A recommendation in a recent analysis of the district from a consortium of the nation’s 70 largest urban school systems suggested, among other things, the board look at axing suspensions in grades PreK-2 that don’t involve immediate physical threats to student safety.
Pamela Harbin, a Point Breeze mother of two and co-founder of the Education Rights Network, said that suggestion “doesn’t go far enough.” She also noted that the district needs a full-time counselor or social worker in every school — and those specialists need the time to have more meaningful interactions with students.
What changes could take effect and when isn’t clear yet. School board president Regina Holley said she and fellow members are concerned about the suspension numbers, but she said the district will need to first “strategize around this really horrible problem we have in the district.” Some schools are already addressing it this year with Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s help, she said.
“Our primary goal right now is to absolutely try to eliminate suspensions that are not of a violent nature. However, we want to have some conversations with our staff before we start to make [such] decisions.”
The district racked up more than 8,200 out-of-school suspensions in the 2015-16 school year, according to district data presented by the Education Rights Network. Seventeen percent of students were suspended at least once, excluding PreK. Black students were suspended four times more than white students, and 79 percent of black students were suspended at least once between preschool and fifth grade.
In the same school year, 65 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for “disruption of school,” which doesn’t pose a safety threat.
The data, Ms. Harbin emphasized, “is not an indictment of this new administration” but rather a “reflection of past policies and practice.”
The district reviews its discipline policy yearly. Last summer, the school board voted to change the Code of Student Conduct to include three levels of student misconduct — instead of two — creating a separate level for the most serious offenses. It also placed a greater focus on “restorative practices,” which allows students to make things right post-conflict, while staying in school.
Kipp Dawson, who teaches seventh grade at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, said one of her students “gets in trouble” in school. But because the girl wasn’t excluded from class Friday, she was able to make major progress on an important paper, “more than she has ever written.”
“Life is becoming more challenging for our children and their families and thus for them. Our children will act out … Our solution must not be to exclude them from the one place that they should have sanctuary: school.”
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944.
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