Students push for changes in District's discipline policy

by on Jul 20 2012

Students from the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools hold a press conference outside the School District building Thursday, July 20.

by Katie McCabe

Student leaders and community allies working with the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools voiced their opposition Thursday to the most recent draft of the School District’s discipline policy at a press conference on the steps of District headquarters.

Members of the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools, along with other organizations like the Education Law Center, have been working since early February to provide recommended changes to the district’s code of conduct as part of School Reform Commissioner Lorene Cary’s safety and engagement committee.

Cary said the students were “absolutely correct” to be concerned about the draft, which still doesn’t address their main concerns. They want it to be clear that students can’t be suspended for infractions like being out of uniform or cutting class and that expulsions will be used as a last resort.

“The changes they are planning to make still do not support our efforts to create a safer space in schools,” said Rachel Purdom, who graduated this year from the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts and is a member of the Mazzoni Center Student Leadership Board.

District officials are now working to write another draft of the code that is more responsive to student feedback.

“We are making, I believe, significant changes to it that do address the things that matter most to them – and to us,” Cary said.

Briana Bailey, a rising junior at Science Leadership Academy, outlined what the student leaders want to see in the new draft.

“We need Lorene Cary, the SRC, and School District to agree to our discipline matrix,” she said. The preferred matrix is a more nuanced framework of disciplinary consequences than what now exists in the code of conduct.

Besides clarifying disciplinary consequences, students want the new code of conduct to spell out the relationship between police and the District. Right now, the code does not make it clear when a student’s offense will result in an arrest by the Philadelphia police.

And beyond changes in the code of conduct, the students also want the District to address the root causes of school violence by increasing their focus on school-wide positive behavior supports and restorative practices, in which students are held accountable for their actions by methods other than punishment.

Youth leaders with the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools have outlined these and other demands in a document released Wednesday, called the “Commitment to Smart School Discipline.” They have asked the School Reform Commission and District officials to sign it, and plan to reiterate their concerns in front of the SRC at Monday’s public meeting at 5:30 p.m.

New official hired to build safety strategy

The SRC recently brought on new Stoneleigh Fellow Jody Greenblatt, who will be working with the commission for the next two years to improve school climate by developing a comprehensive safety strategy for the School District.

Greenblatt and Cary are now organizing a principal engagement and safety summit to take place in August. This past spring, the SRC and the District worked with the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission to provide district-wide trainings to school leaders on anti-bullying and anti-harassment school policies.

The International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), based out of Bethlehem, Pa., also periodically holds trainings for teachers and school leaders in the Philadelphia area. The most recent four-day session was held a few weeks ago. IIRP also has a master’s-level program.

The institute is hopeful that it will be able to restart its restorative justice work at West Philadelphia High School, thanks to a $40,000 grant from the Community Revitalization Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

John Bailie, IIRP's director of continuing education programs, wants to build on this work at West Philadelphia High School to create a “West Philadelphia Restorative Zone.”

In such a zone, anyone who works with young people – in families, social service agencies, police, churches, or school – would get training in restorative practices.

IIRP has had success with a similar initiative in Hull, England, the “world’s first restorative city.”

In West Philadelphia, the zone is still in its early planning stages. Initial meetings were held in the spring with stakeholders, including Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, and the IIRP is now preparing a grant application to support the project’s further development.

Teachers and school leaders who have gone through IIRP training or courses have high hopes for the impact that restorative practices could have if implemented District-wide.

“If the District adopted this, it would be so fantastic,” said Lauren Fischer, a guidance counselor who works at Powel Elementary school and attended IIRP’s most recent workshop in Philadelphia.

She especially thinks the District’s current process for disciplinary expulsions, referred to as the EH-21 process, could be improved by a focus on restorative practices.

“If kids do one thing wrong … you either go back to school and nothing happens, or you go to a disciplinary school, and it’s on your record forever,” Fischer said. “With restorative practices, the problem can be looked at more closely.”

Stacy Phillips, a special education teacher at Juniata Park Academy who graduated from IIRP’s master’s program this year, also thinks that the district needs to focus more on restorative practices.

“I think that the District as a whole would really benefit from this mind-shift,” Phillips said. “But it’s definitely not something that happens overnight.”

Cary agrees that a culture change is needed around discipline practices, but says it will take time.

“Changing culture is a much more complex problem than imposing compliance,” said Cary, “but it’s a more effective way to get different outcomes.”