Pittsburgh Public Schools overdue to clarify student code

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It has been four years since I've had a kid in the Pittsburgh Public Schools, but as a city resident, I'm still invested in the district's success.

Properly functioning schools are the bedrock of a properly functioning democracy. As citizens, we're less inclined to complain about being bled dry as taxpayers if our kids graduate with honors and a minimum of trauma. If they've developed a genuine enthusiasm for facing the challenges of university life, or whatever comes their way if college isn't their bag, then every dollar in taxes will have been worth it.

That's why those of us who truly appreciate the Pittsburgh Public Schools had to work hard to suppress an involuntary shudder after reading a front page story in Monday's Post-Gazette: "Schools to clarify codes of conduct."

The story noted that under the current definition of "disorderly conduct" in the Pittsburgh Public Schools Code of Student Conduct, students can find themselves embroiled in the court system for something as trivial as getting to class late or failing to remove a baseball cap when asked.

Missing school days, when suspensions are meted out as punishment, also jeopardizes eligibility for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship, a pot of gold that has proven to be an invaluable way to encourage our kids to attend in-state universities and colleges.

Given the stakes, the status quo is unconscionable. Because kids who don't deserve to be suspended or subjected to the whims of the criminal justice system are sometimes singled out for punishment by teachers and school officials for the vaguest of reasons, Pittsburgh Public Schools is making a good faith attempt to put in place new language that 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 would be great if there really was legal justification for ruining some kid's life. Fighting, threatening classmates or teachers, unreasonable noise, obscene language and creating hazardous conditions in the classroom constitute legitimate grounds for punishment, but does everything need to be criminalized? Aren't some disruptions less serious than others?

Because the Code of Student Conduct is in desperate need of revision, school officials have an excuse to screw up royally -- the difference between disorderly conduct and class disruption is about as clear as mud. An audit released in January by then-state Auditor General Jack Wagner noted that due to lack of clarity in the difference between "disorderly conduct" and "disruption of school," the city schools in 2009-10 and 2010-11 had a rate of incidents reported as disorderly conduct that was about triple the statewide average.

The number of disorderly conduct cases in Pittsburgh in 2011-12 dropped to 1,548 from 3,496 the year before, because the school district was aware that it had a problem and aggressively addressed it.

Not every disorderly conduct violation goes to court if the school official doling out the punishment has a sense of proportion, but the arbitrariness of how it is determined has reached ridiculous levels in Pittsburgh schools. Too many futures are being negatively affected. Meanwhile, it will be another year before the rules are clarified and the revisions adopted by the school board.

My teeth had barely finished grinding when I stumbled across another piece in the Magazine section of Monday's Post-Gazette that dealt with a University of Pittsburgh study of school children who were found to be better behaved in Asia than the U.S.

The study's lead researcher persuasively argued that self-regulation of behavior at a very early age was one of the most important factors in school readiness. Kids literally can't learn if they never learn how to control their impulses. If a young child can learn how to delay gratification, that child can learn -- period.

It was one of those sobering articles that calmly explained why so many other cultures are better at educating their children than we are -- but at least it suggested the kind of best practices we could adopt if we had the will to put our mediocrity behind us.

There probably aren't many school districts in Asia that have anything like our Code of Student Conduct. They already value each and every student enough to treat them like their nation's future depends on it.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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