September 21 — 11:00 pm, 2005

Harsh punishment: a factor that pushes students out?

In Philadelphia schools, “21” is not always a number. Sometimes it’s a verb.

“Watch out, or she’s gonna ’21’ you,” one student might warn another, making reference to the EH-21 form that is used in the School District to transfer a student to a disciplinary school.

“Pink slip” and “locked up” are also common words in the vocabulary of Philadelphia classrooms and hallways, providing evidence that punishment has become as much a part of school culture as cafeteria food and textbooks.

District data show that transfers to disciplinary schools have climbed in recent years. The District now has 3,750 seats in alternative disciplinary schools, all run by private providers – up from 1,000 five years ago.

The School District executed 1,475 disciplinary transfers in 2001-2002. The following year, that number jumped to 1,871. In 2003-2004, there were 1,739 transfers to disciplinary placements.

While District officials report a decline in suspensions, they are still issued at a rate of over 300 per day – about one suspension for every three students in the system over the course of a year.

Russell Skiba, an Indiana University professor who co-directs the Safe and Responsive Schools Project, is one of a growing group of educators and researchers who maintain that a regimen of strict, get-tough disciplinary approaches may not be producing the desired results – and may be a factor in leading some students to abandon school altogether.

“Fifteen years after the rise of zero tolerance, there is still no credible evidence that zero tolerance suspensions and expulsions are an effective method for changing student behavior,” Skiba wrote in a recent article. He pointed to evidence of a “moderate correlation” between exclusionary discipline policies and school dropouts.

The Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project has warned that the suspend-and-arrest order of many zero tolerance policies creates a “schoolhouse to jailhouse” track for groups of already vulnerable children.

Some students told the Notebook about their discouragement at how schools handle discipline and safety issues, saying they don’t feel valued, respected, or wanted.

“They kind of just push you off to the side, like you don’t matter,” said Justin, an 18-year-old who dropped out of South Philadelphia High School.

Unfolding of zero tolerance

School zero tolerance policies proliferated after the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated a one-year expulsion for any student who brings a firearm to school.

Pennsylvania took this one step further with Act 26, which not only requires a minimum one-year expulsion for students found with weapons, but also provides a broad list of what the state means by weapon, including not only guns and knives, but “any cutting tool.”

The consequences of Act 26 recently came down on David, a bright, talkative, 17-year- old who said he was expelled from Martin Luther King to a disciplinary school after he forgot to remove his pocket knife from his key chain. Rather than accept the forced disciplinary transfer, David chose to leave school.

“I’m not a behavioral problem,” he explained. “Why should I go to a behavioral school?”

Meanwhile, suspensions are sometimes applied as a firm response to non-threatening behavior, such as lateness and truancy.

Taquira, an 18-year-old who left Washington High School last school year, recounted how a cycle of suspension and truancy charges began for her when she failed to get through the front door in the morning. She said the principal closed the door on scores of students who hadn’t filed through the metal detector in appropriate time.

“Imagine a whole school of kids going through one door? One door!” she snapped. “There were probably 100 kids who all got suspended.”

Another young person who quit school, 16- year-old former William Penn student Imean, added, “I got suspended for being late. I was late like three days . . . . They called and said, ‘Your son’s going to be in truancy, and he’s going to get locked up.’ “

Imean explained his reaction: “What’s the point of going to school anymore when they tell you they’re gonna lock you up?”

Judith Browne, senior attorney at the Advancement Project, commented, “We’re seeing very minor conduct becoming a criminal act. Things a police officer might not arrest someone for in a bar fight, we’re seeing schools calling in police to make arrests for.”

She said the result is “breeding a generation of children who think they are criminals for the way they are being treated in school.”

Studies point to the disproportionate punishment of students of color through such practices.

According to Skiba, students of color have traditionally been suspended at rates of two to three times that of other students, and overrepresented in office referrals and school expulsion. Such disparities “appear to have increased since the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act,” he said.

Zero tolerance and due process

It is unclear whether escalating punishments in Philadelphia’s schools have produced improvements in the atmosphere.

School figures have ebbed and flowed as reporting practices change, but there is no clear trend in the numbers of serious incidents.

Philadelphia schools CEO Paul Vallas says the School District is “not doing one size fits all” discipline. He indicated that the policy is “much more complex and sophisticated” than just zero tolerance.

“We don’t expel students to the streets, but expel students who pose serious problems to disciplinary schools,” he said. “And that’s why we have a diversity of discipline school offerings.

“Zero tolerance is designed to a certain extent to send a message, but at the end of the day, look at what we’re doing with our due process,” he said.

But Skiba questioned the impact of the zero tolerance message, saying that among 10 years of studies – sponsored by Congress, the U.S. Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control, and the Departments of Education and looking at youth violence prevention — “none identified zero tolerance as an effective method for reducing youth violence.”

He said the studies did, however, identify strategies that are “effective or promising”: bullying prevention, conflict resolution, improved teacher training in classroom management, parent involvement, anger management, and multi-agency collaboration.

Two other approaches that have been gaining currency in Philadelphia are small schools initiatives, which often produce a more intimate, personalized environment, and restorative practices, an approach that emphasizes repairing harm done to relationships and people rather than assigning blame and doling out punishments.

Making reparations

Restorative practice techniques are being integrated into the curriculum and culture at the Parkway Northwest High School for Peace and Social Justice, a small school that was reorganized around those themes this year. A North Philadelphia middle school, Stoddart-Fleisher, has also been implementing a restorative practices program.

The approach “encourages those who have caused harm to acknowledge the impact of what they have done and gives them an opportunity to make reparation. It offers those who have suffered the harm the opportunity to have their harm or loss acknowledged and amends made,” noted the London-based nonprofit Restorative Justice Consortium.

Restorative justice in schools is an inclusive practice that may involve not just the “culprit” in any conflict, but also the victim and members of the school community who are affected.

DeVonne White, Schools and Communities Manager for the Good Shepherd Mediation Program, which is helping the new Peace School implement restorative practices, explained, “Students have an opportunity to not only learn skills, but practice them throughout their high school experience.” She described it as “a way of providing a healthy, caring, faithful school environment.”

Brenda Morrison, a research fellow at Australian National University, who chaired a recent conference on “Restorative Justice and Schools” at the University of Pennsylvania, does caution, however, about sweeping efforts to dismantle all punishment practices and substitute a mass movement of restorative practice.

“It is better to think of them as complimentary mechanisms, and that as you begin to introduce these things, you will get a culture shift in the school, where we will start to be more inclusive about listening to concerns,” she said.

Modifying zero tolerance policies in schools is a goal some organizations are taking on.

For instance, the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia recently received a $120,000 grant for a Support for Access to Education Project to reform zero tolerance policies in schools that unfairly or inappropriately lead to suspension, expulsion or arrest.

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