Philadelphia members of the Alliance for Educational Justice, a national coalition of activist groups working to end the school-to-prison pipeline, invited public officials to a meeting before the recent election to recommend changes in discipline policies here and nationwide.
At the October sessions, students from Youth United for Change and Philadelphia Student Union urged that the District review zero tolerance policies and asked the state to give incentives to districts to "reduce an over-reliance on referrals to school police, expulsions, and out-of-school suspensions."
They also said Congress should mandate reporting of disciplinary incidents along with test scores "to show an accurate picture of the race, class, gender, and sexual orientation of students who are being disciplined."
Several students said that schools needed policies and programs focused on the causes of misbehavior.
"The issue is that why students acted up is never addressed," said YUC's Ebony Baylis.
Harold Jordan of the American Civil Liberties Union cited District data showing that 10-day suspensions – the longest possible before expulsion – more than tripled from 314 to 1,078 between 2007-08 and 2008-09, the year that the District stepped up enforcement of zero tolerance.
Out of 46,350 suspensions, nearly one-third were for the catch-all offense of "disruption," 3,831 for "offensive language," and 1,150 for dress-code violations. He said schools should find ways besides excluding students from school to deal with those issues.
"Philadelphia schools are too violent, but it is clear to me that this administration doesn't have the ability to administer a fair system of discipline," Jordan said.
State Rep. Tony Payton, said he was "frightened, sad, disappointed but not surprised" by the data and the students' statements. He added that "zero tolerance does not work."