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Winter 2009 Vol. 17. No. 3 Focus on School Climate

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A growing expulsion pipeline

Staff was added to help handle these cases. But critics see students in disciplinary limbo.


Wendy Harris

on Nov 28, 2009 01:33 PM
Photo: Harvey Finkle

Students get ready to start the school day at Philadelphia Learning Academy South, one of two new alternative District schools for students who have been expelled or are awaiting an expulsion hearing.

Unlike some 11th graders, Kyle Mechin knows exactly what he would like to do after high school.

“I want to go to UCLA film school. I want to be a horror movie director,” he said.

An A and B student at Swenson Arts and Technology High School, Mechin was on his way to achieving his goal. He was taking a digital media arts class to learn filmmaking, and was encouraged by news that a friend who took the same class received a full scholarship to the college of her choice because of her work in that course.

But in September, after being caught with a pair of two-inch scissors in his backpack, Mechin was transferred to Shallcross, a disciplinary school run by Camelot Schools of Pennsylvania. The offense violated the District’s zero-tolerance policy, which says that students cannot bring onto school property materials that could be used as potential weapons. According to Pennsylvania’s Act 26, Mechin’s scissors – with blades smaller than his finger – are considered a weapon.

Mechin said he didn’t know the scissors were in his backpack. His girlfriend had put them there the night before after cleaning out her purse and forgot to retrieve them. Despite many testimonies on his behalf at his hearing and recommendations from teachers affirming his good behavior, Mechin was removed from Swenson.

Since the fall of 2008, the District’s zero-tolerance policies have put hundreds of students on track to expulsion. Questionable cases like Mechin’s are hard to quantify, but not exceptional.

At Shallcross, Mechin completes course work several grades below his own, is allowed only 15 minutes for lunch, has to surrender personal items in plastic bags each day, and is required to “walk in protocol” with his hands behind his back.

After 90 days at Shallcross, Mechin may be allowed to reapply to Swenson. But even if readmitted, he fears his future may have been irrevocably damaged.

“What colleges are going to look at me now?” he lamented.

No excuses

Philadelphia, like many districts, uses zero-tolerance policies to deter violence and improve school climate. But complaints are growing that flaws in the discipline process are unfairly snagging some students while subjecting too many to long delays and possibly violating their due process rights.

Community Responses to Zero Tolerance, an advocacy group, convened in January in response to the District’s new zero-tolerance policy, said Harold Jordan, a member and community organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“When you have policies like zero tolerance, too often they bring in a certain kind of rigidity that is not appropriate to all situations,” he said.

Since Superintendent Arlene Ackerman tightened zero tolerance in 2008-09, any student who commits a Level 2 offense (as outlined in the Code of Student Conduct) in school, on school property, or during any school-sanctioned activity could face suspension, referral to an alternative school, or expulsion. One big change under Ackerman is that those who commit Level 2 offenses considered to be “zero-tolerance offenses” are automatically suspended with the intent to expel.

Benjamin Wright, regional superintendent for the Alternative Education Region (AER), said “zero-tolerance offenses” are possession of a weapon, possession of drugs or alcohol with intent to distribute or use, assault on school personnel, and aggravated assault on other students.

“Zero tolerance means that the student is deemed a threat to the school and needs to come out right away,” Wright said.

But Wright emphasized that expulsion from the District cannot take place without a formal hearing and then a School Reform Commission vote.

In 2008-09, the SRC considered 193 expulsion cases; 166 students were expelled. This school year, the SRC already has 90 expulsion cases to hear – which include carryovers from last year, advocates claim. But three months into the school year, the SRC had acted on only four of these cases.

Passing through the pipeline

If a student commits a Level 2 offense, the first step is for the principal to investigate the incident, fill out disciplinary forms, and recommend a consequence. A conference is held with the parent, and the regional superintendent reviews all paperwork pertaining to the recommendation.  If the recommendation is to transfer the student to an alternative school (see box) or expel, the documents are submitted to AER so a transfer hearing can be scheduled. 

Under Pennsylvania law, all hearings involving a possible expulsion must take place within 15 school days of the time a student is notified of the charges. And unless the student presents a danger, the statute requires that a student remain in his regular school in the meantime.

At the hearing, witnesses can testify and the student can bring an attorney. The hearing officer can exonerate the student, order a transfer to an alternative school, or seek expulsion.

If expulsion is recommended, the case is sent to the Office of General Counsel for a second hearing. Expulsion occurs only after a vote by the SRC, which Wright said occurs within two months.

But according to David Lapp, an attorney with the Education Law Center, 11 students represented by the nonprofit last year waited an average of four months for their first hearings and almost six months for the SRC to vote. The District and advocates have disagreed on whether those delays are illegal under the school code.

Lapp said that it is “egregious” that the District puts some students in discipline schools before any hearing takes place.

Jordan agreed, saying, “This notion that you can automatically remove kids without at least doing some preliminary work first is a problem, because it raises questions of fairness and disruption that is created in the kid’s education.”

Chalissa Morrison was transferred in February from West Philadelphia High School to Community Education Partners (CEP), Miller campus, without a hearing after school officials found a steak knife in her book bag.

“The night before I was going home late from my best friend’s house and she put it in there for my protection,” Morrison said. She forgot about it when she went to school the next day.

School personnel immediately called police. Morrison, a mentally gifted student, was put in handcuffs and taken to the 18th Police District, where she sat “and cried” for 14 hours. After her release, she was placed on five days’ suspension. Morrison then returned to West.

“But while I was in class doing my work, the disciplinary person called me out of class and gave me a letter that said I had to go to CEP,” she said.

For five months at the disciplinary school, Morrison rotated between the same four subjects in a setting she described as more like a “prison block” than a learning environment. Her hearing was finally held in June. She was exonerated and reinstated to West, where she is now a senior, but not without a major interruption to her academic career.

“In a lot of our cases, kids get exonerated because it became clear at the hearing that they were not a person that did any violence [or intended to be violent]. But in the meantime, they were out of their regular school for months,” Lapp said.

Rendering a decision

Although discipline recommendations begin at the school level, hearing officers, who work in the AER, determine where students in the pipeline will go.

Eight hearing officers conduct six to seven proceedings per day, poring over discipline referral forms, witness statements, and Behavior Performance Reviews (BPRs), reports that determine whether there is evidence – previously overlooked – that the student should be evaluated on eligibility for special ed services.

Heloise Jettison, AER executive director, said that investigations are conducted prior to the referral packet landing in that office, enabling the hearing officers to be “impartial. We don’t have all this outside stuff.”

Jettison said while the officers are not required to have law degrees, they all have bachelor’s degrees and can decipher the law. She added that most have experience in education and social work, along with “school-based knowledge on the ground with families and children.”

Three of the officers were former Discipline Truancy Liaisons (DTLs), working in the District’s regional offices.

Improving the process

Wright acknowledged that mistakes were made last year regarding kids being placed in discipline schools without a hearing, but said this is no longer happening.

“You have to have a hearing first and permission from your regional superintendent to even request [transfer],” he said.

As for the timeline, Wright said that now, “every kid gets a hearing within 10 days.” To help deal with disciplinary cases the District has streamlined its process with the addition of staff so that students quickly move through the pipeline, Wright said.

Ten DTLs, who last year worked directly with Wright at District headquarters, have now been dispatched to the regions, where they are expected to review the paperwork about an offense and submit it to AER within four days after the incident.

In addition to the eight full-time hearing officers, three others are on call, and five transition liaisons now work in alternative schools to ensure students receive support and preparation to go back to a regular school environment.

Plus, the District has opened two new schools, Philadelphia Learning Academy North and South (see New school), for students who have either been expelled or are awaiting an expulsion hearing.

Lapp credited the District for the improvements, but he cautioned that the use of zero tolerance still can jeopardize the academic careers of good students.

Mechin agreed. “The District should investigate the cases more thoroughly [because] there are probably a lot of good kids getting opportunities taken away for things that weren’t even their fault.”

About the Author

Contact Notebook Managing Editor Wendy Harris.

Comments (8)

Submitted by AKaman (not verified) on November 25, 2009 9:02 pm

Don't kid yourself. The school district is doing nothing to improve school climate. These schools are not happy places for children or teachers.
School climate is a large factor in school improvement. There will be no improvement in climate until the teacher inquisition ends, and administrators as well as teachers look for the good to celebrate.

My favorite is the one about a teacher who received a memo for not giving English grades to three students who weren't even in her class. When approached, administration instead of acknowledging the mistake and apologizing, stood by it.
Got to meet the quota.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 30, 2009 8:09 pm

A Kaman...Let's face can't Torquemada anything!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2009 7:59 pm

Ha! I've broken up 7 fistfights in 3 months of school. 2 out of 14 combatants were suspended. The rest were returned immediatley to class. Zero tolerance my behind!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2009 10:10 pm

Two pregnant teachers were shoved to the ground by students and two male teachers were also attacked. None of them received a suspension, let alone an expulsion. I think you'd better look a little deeper into this story.Many truly dangerous students remain in our schools, threatening their peers and making it difficult to teach.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 30, 2009 11:05 am

There are some very dedicated professionals in the School District. There are also a lot of bureaucrats more concerned with their careers than the need to squash political correctness and LEAD the organization forward. Attorneys and the ACLU are paralyzing the district's ability to fulfill its mission.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on December 5, 2009 10:54 am

This story does quite a job of tugging on our heartstrings. I might have been taken in by it, only I teach at the school where one of these students attended, and I know that the picture the Notebook paints of this student is off the mark to say the least; it’s clear the Notebook conveniently left out a number of important background details.

In fact, the Notebook’s depiction of this student is so far off base it’s mind blowing; when some of the faculty at our school read it, they tossed the story across their desk in disbelief.

To read more about the misleading nature of this story, click on the link below.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 18, 2010 11:19 am

My 14 year old son was involved in an incident at school in the fall of 2008 where he made a comment in anger at a class mate saying "you're dead". At the time my son was extremely upset and angry and was then questioned by the guidance couselor who said to him oh come on you don't mean that you're really going to kill him do you? Still upset and very angry my son said oh yes I do...and so began our "zero tolerance nightmare". He was expelled and we were offered the opportunity to have a hearing with the school board. We checked with people in our community who had the experience of dealing with our school board on such matters and were advised not to put our son through that due to the fact that the board would curcify him and embarass him and we wouldn't win the case due to zero tolerance. Our choice was not to put our emotionally fragile son through that process. The school recommended an alternative school program called a "Partial Program" which entailed partial education and partial counceling sessions during the school day. This program is located within a local high school in a different school district than ours. The Superintendent of the other district would not accept him due to the expulsion from our home district. Due to the "political connection/friendship of our Superintendent and the other district's Superintendent, the expulsion was waived so that my son could attend the other districts program.
In order for my son to be eligible for the program he had to be put on Medical Assistance in spite of the fact that he is covered under my health insurance at work. My point is this: if my son was sent home that day and a meeting arranged with both sets of parents, both students and the school administrators, my son would have had time to calm down and rethink his words and apologize for his words. Due to Zero Tolerance, that never happened. It cost my son his freshman year of high school and all that is associated with that which he will never re-coup. He has had his first and God willing, only dealings with the legal system. We went to court, he was on probation and is now in counseling. It is costing the tax payers of the State of PA because he will now be on Medical Assistance until he is 18 years old. The emotional toll that it has taken on this child is yet to be realized. He is now back in our home district but he is the outcast at school and is under constant scrutiny. This is a kid who was in this district from K-8 with not an issue but none of that was even taken into consideration. Zero Tolerance does not work!!

Submitted by eantonsen (not verified) on June 2, 2010 1:49 pm

As a new teacher in Philadelphia, I have mixed feelings about Zero Tolerance policies. In premise, it's a very logical expectation. Students should not behave in ways that disrupt the safety of their peers, especially in an educational setting. But at what point do you draw that line? How is a knife, mistakenly left in a backpack more dangerous than a number of desks being thrown across a classroom in the direction of students? One results in an expulsion and the other does not bear any consequences. I've had both in my classroom and it was the more violent incident that was brushed under the rug and the mistake that resulted in the most severe consequences. Regardless, neither incident should be tolerated - but is expulsion and suspension the right answer? Can there be a set procedure that accommodates all the backgrounds of each student and situation? If there can, then it needs to be followed consistently.

My students have been conditioned, by their community and the school's administration, to believe that violence and retaliation is acceptable in a classroom. Instead of assigning rather arbitrary and unhelpful consequences, we should be working harder to establish an environment that prepares our youngsters to become productive members of society. With such an emphasis on testing, standards, and data, where is there room to do this character building? Is the intent of a school to factory-produce pupils or to shape the people who will one day be running our country. Especially in an urban environment, if we are to prevent (or at least provide options to) the current model of social reproduction, it is especially necessary that we move away from the parallels between schools and prisons.

As other writers have suggested, there are always pieces of the puzzle that we don't understand. Students may have a history of disruption, schools may have a tendency to manipulate their records. But can we really spend so much of our efforts on history and records? Especially with the CSAP process, it seems as though the district is attempting to create a cookie-cutter remedy for the behavior situations that result in the more extreme, level 2 offenses. But if a teacher spends their time completing paperwork, when do they have time to work with students on appropriate behaviors. Again, a situation is created where standardization is great in theory, but ineffective in execution.

If there is a zero tolerance policy, it absolutely must be consistent and executable. The same should go for other behaviors - but the proper steps to prevent such behaviors should also be in place and executable.

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