Class project: The city schools' conduct code is due for a rewrite

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Most student offenses should be dealt with by the school. Others are serious enough to refer to the legal system. But the Pittsburgh Public Schools' Code of Student Conduct hardly seems to know the difference.

Under the code, students have been prosecuted in local courts for infractions as minor as refusing to take off a baseball cap. In recent years, Pittsburgh students have been suspended and put through the criminal justice system in alarming numbers, a situation that is bad for them and bad for the city.

School officials recognize the need for change and over the next year will work with the Education Law Center, a local legal organization, to rewrite the code. In the meantime, the school board will vote on a number of smaller changes this month.

The code of conduct states that students who are charged with "disorderly conduct" may be sent to court for prosecution, but its definition is so broad that it includes "unruly behavior, unreasonable noise, the use of obscene language and gestures" and other behaviors that should not be referred to the criminal justice system.

Offenses that send students to the courts will remain on their records, exposing them to future consequences like difficulty finding employment. Many experts agree that early involvement in the criminal justice system may put students at risk for further charges as adults. Even students who are suspended from school may face damaging consequences: Suspensions count against a student's attendance rate, and that could hurt a young person who applies for the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship, which requires a high school attendance rate of 90 percent. Worse still, a student who is fined and fails to pay, perhaps due to low family income, is sent to juvenile court for additional charges.

Criminalization of school misbehavior except in the most serious cases, such as violence toward students or staff, is also a waste of the legal system's time and resources.

Changes to the code of conduct to be voted on later this month include, among others, narrowing the definition of "disorderly conduct" so that it closely resembles the legal definition. Such changes may result in fewer unnecessary prosecutions and should be approved. But even this new definition could send students to court for matters best addressed in school.

The school board should use its broader rewrite of the code over the next year to craft a policy that puts student discipline back into the hands of teachers and principals. The best policy will be one that encourages a culture of discipline and support for students within the school rather than kicks behavioral issues to the courts.

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