Principals struggle with gray areas in a zero-tolerance environment
by Sarah Peterson
Principals in Philadelphia who responded to an online Notebook survey overwhelmingly say they do not receive enough training or District support so they can fairly and consistently implement its zero-tolerance discipline policy.
In follow-up interviews, some principals said they feel the District sends conflicting messages about handling incidents. And the majority of those who consented to interviews also said they do not think that their schools are safer because of zero tolerance.
In October, the Notebook put the survey on its website and advertised it through the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), the principals’ union. All replies were confidential. There were 35 responses, out of approximately 260 principals in the system.
Read all of the questions and see a summary of survey results.
While the sample is small, self-selected, and unscientific, the responses and interviews raised important issues at a time when the responsibility of principals to enforce zero tolerance and report all incidents is under public scrutiny. The subject drew attention during a September School Reform Commission meeting, when officials discussed the level of discretion principals have in determining the severity of an infraction.
“There are terrible inconsistencies in the messages going on regarding school climate and school safety,” said CASA president Michael Lerner. “Principals sometimes find themselves in a real dilemma to decide what is an appropriate path to take.”
From the District’s point of view, the policy is clear. Once a serious violation takes place – described as a Level 2 offense in the Code of Student Conduct – there is a six-step protocol that must be followed in reporting and dealing with the incident.
While the Code lists dozens of possible violations and their corresponding consequences, determining the degree and definition of these infractions still falls on principals, who are also accountable for reporting incidents to the District and, in certain cases, to law enforcement officers.
The number of serious incidents in a school determines whether it is considered “persistently dangerous” or not – and Philadelphia reports so many incidents that the city routinely accounts for all the schools in the state given that designation.
Leaving room for good judgment, many argue, is important because violence and discipline can be complicated and require contextual considerations. That gray area, however, also exposes principals to public scrutiny and to the same inconsistencies that zero tolerance is meant to prevent.
Said Lerner, “I know principals who were called up because they didn’t use discretion, and others called up because they did. And the cases aren’t always that different.”
Of the 35 principals who responded, more said they felt they had some or lots of discretion than those who said they had little or no discretion “to use common sense in handling discipline infractions.”
It is hard to determine whether “some discretion” is enough, however – or whether discretion results in fairness and consistency.
A significant majority, 63 percent of respondents, rated the District’s policies on how to deal with discipline infractions as “somewhat unclear” or “not at all clear.”
In interviews, some principals reported feeling that zero tolerance limited their discretion and sometimes caused them to go against their better judgment – while at the same time shielding them from unwanted second-guessing.
“It’s kind of like, well, if I report it, they can’t attack me,” said Maureen Skalski, the principal of Sharswood Elementary in South Philadelphia. “Even though I don’t agree with it, you can’t hang me on this. We are so scrutinized in Philadelphia, as administrators, that I just throw my hands up and report it.”
A year ago, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman sent a letter to students and a similar one to parents that reinforced the District’s zero-tolerance policy. It specified that school administrators were required to suspend students for 10 days with intent to expel when there was “reasonable or probable ground to believe” that they had committed an act of violence or assault, or “possessed or has transported onto school property materials to utilize as potential weapons.”
The letter was sent to principals, who were asked to distribute it to all families that same day.
“My initial reading of this was, my God, do we really have to give this out?” said Robert McGrogan, principal of Alexander Adaire Elementary School.
McGrogan felt that it could lead to the oversimplification of complicated situations, and limited principals’ ability to use good judgment.
“When everyone is notified of what you’re required to do, you’re disempowered,” he said. “Giving this out opens the door for being scrutinized about any decision that you make.”
Then, according to McGrogan, principals were told at the next citywide principals’ meeting that they had been overusing the new policy.