By Benjamin Herold
for NewsWorks, a Notebook news partner
The 500 Philadelphia students who expected to attend one of the two alternative education programs previously run by troubled Delaware Valley High School are in for a big change when school starts.
The School Reform Commission voted Thursday evening to adopt a revised code of conduct that gives principals more discretion in handling disciplinary cases and prevents some infractions from being punished by out-of-school suspensions.
Incoming Superintendent William Hite told a roomful of school leaders at the District's annual leadership summit Monday morning that enforcement of rules is just one piece of school discipline and that "zero tolerance" to him means "a preventive set of strategies," rather than a punishment tool.
The national issue of high rates of expulsion and suspension that disproportionately affect students of color, highlighted locally by a study earlier this year, is the subject of this investigative report just published by the Center for Public Integrity. The Center is a Notebook partner through the Investigative News Network.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — As he waited for his first disciplinary appeal hearing to begin this fall, the sixth-grade student began sobbing.
He was barely 11 years old. He had been expelled again — for the rest of the school year — from his Bakersfield elementary school district, this time for alleged sexual battery and obscenity.
The offense: “Slapping a girl on the buttock and running away laughing,” according to school documents.
Opponents of the District's "zero tolerance" policy scored a victory in September when the District eliminated the phrase from its student code of conduct.
Just how big a victory remains unclear.
The policy, enacted in October 2008 under former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, spurred an increase in student expulsions, igniting opposition from activists who want to see alternatives to punitive disciplinary policies.
The School District’s zero-tolerance discipline policy does not make school safer, creates a prison-like culture, costs money - and it keeps students “one minor mistake away from having their life turned upside down,” according to a new report.
Wilfredo Cruz is seated in the back of his 8th grade English class, scanning the room.
When he spots another student with his head down, Wilfredo whispers the boy’s name, trying to get his attention.
Last year, this would have been the start of trouble. As a 7th grader at John B. Stetson Middle School, Wilfredo would often simply walk out of class to wander the halls. He was suspended multiple times and given detention countless others, for offenses ranging from writing graffiti on school property to fighting to bringing a BB gun to school.
About a quarter of students initially referred for expulsion by their schools since August 2009 were not ultimately expelled by the School Reform Commission, according to an analysis of 13 months of data by the Education Law Center (ELC).
And the rate of rejection is going up. Since April, more than one-third of the cases brought to the SRC did not result in expulsion.
The Accountability Review Council (ARC), an independent panel that monitors District reform efforts, and the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania recently released studies that raise questions about the effectiveness of alternative and disciplinary schools.
Alternative schools include accelerated programs for dropouts and over-age students with few credits as well as disciplinary schools serving students who have violated the District’s code of conduct.
Community Education Partners, the for-profit operator of disciplinary schools that ushered in the privatization of alternative education in Philadelphia, has notified the state Department of Labor and Industry that it is closing its remaining four schools as of the end of this month. Its contract with the District was terminated June 30, according to District spokeswoman Lisa Mastoon.
The Nashville-based firm said it would be laying off 74 employees. A company spokesperson did not immediately return a call for comment.