March 6 — 12:13 pm, 2009

When push comes to shove

Student dignity in Philadelphia schools vs. zero tolerance

img 7805 Photo: Harvey Finkle

Daniel Shaw was a 10th grader at the Franklin Learning Center until the day that he accidentally, he said, brought a small pocketknife to school that was flagged by a metal detector. He turned it over without incident, but was nonetheless handcuffed, arrested, and taken to the police district to await his mother.

At the hearing before a single school official, he gave his side of the story, but was still transferred to a disciplinary school. He was out of school for a time and now attends the alternative program at Accelerated Learning Academy in North Philadelphia.

 “Words like ‘potential’ and ‘smart’ don’t mean anything when you’re being treated like trash,” Shaw said, recounting his experience with the disciplinary process. “It made me feel like a criminal from the very beginning.”

That kind of harsh punishment, often a result of zero-tolerance discipline policies that treat all infractions the same, can worsen the very kind of behavior the policy is trying to combat, says a growing body of research.

In response, some are introducing “dignity” as a concept that is crucial to keeping students on track to graduation and ending the “push-out” of large numbers of students.

“Student dignity is recognizing every child’s right to an education, the full development of their personality, talents, mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential,” said Matthew Cregor, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The most effective way to realize their full potential is to create a positive school climate.”

Cregor is a core member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a nationwide collaborative of advocates, parents, student organizers, and educators that is trying to reframe the debate around school discipline. Instead of policies that are exclusionary and favor punishment, the campaign promotes child-centered reforms they say will keep more children in school.

According to the campaign Web site,, it seeks to promote “local and national alternatives to a culture of zero tolerance, punishment and removal.” It is planning a national conference in Chicago in June.

The School Reform Commission in October, at the urging of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, resumed expelling students, an option that had not been used in five years. It sent a message to principals that suspension from school should be used more consistently for students who violate the code of student conduct.

While there are no data yet on how that policy has affected school climate, some Philadelphia students say they have experienced the differences between the zero-tolerance approach and one that emphasizes positive behavioral supports.

Milagros Adorno left Edison High School and reconnected at Fairhill Community Academy, an alternative school for returning dropouts, where she is determined to get her diploma.

“At Edison, I didn’t feel any support, and the education was not good enough, so I stopped going,” she explained.

Emely Ureña, another Fairhill student, who had formerly attended Northeast High, said students are turned off by classes that lack rigor.

“I felt unmotivated at my other school because I was not being challenged in my classes,” she said. “If I went to school three times a week, that was good enough. We used to walk right out of the front door of the school and no one would notice,” she said.

Jannette Rivera, a junior at Kensington Business, said that while her small high school has a “poor” curriculum, it has a positive atmosphere.“What has been the most important part has been to feel safe and feel the love,” she said.

These students said they are now motivated to succeed and graduate because they have had caring teachers who were interested in each individual student, something missing in their previous schools.

The students complained about another fixture in Philadelphia public schools: metal detectors.

“It feels like prison,” said Cherelle Reed, a senior at Overbrook High.

Reed added, “It feels like the School District is pushing kids out and not helping them. They even have hall sweeps where anyone found in the hall at a certain time is suspended.”

Like Philadelphia, school districts nationwide are adopting tougher discipline policies to curb student violence and remove problematic students in an effort to improve the learning environment. While popular, these policies are often not effective. A study from the Zero-Tolerance Task Force of the American Psychological Association released in 2006 said that as many as 41 percent of suspended students commit further infractions in school.

Under Philadelphia’s new policy, any student who assaults an adult or another student, commits or incites an act of violence, or possesses or transports materials that could potentially be used as weapons could be suspended up to 10 days and recommended for expulsion.

As of mid-February, four students had been recommended for expulsion and all had been expelled.

Deborah Gordon Klehr, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center (ELC)  in Philadelphia, said that the expulsion policy “is being implemented in a blanket fashion without examination of intent.”

The ELC is part of a local collaborative that is working to educate the public about the pitfalls of zero-tolerance policies and promote alternatives, including prevention services and positive behavior supports. The collaborative includes the ACLU, Philadelphia Student Union, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, United Way, and Youth United for Change.

the notebook

Our news is free to read, but not to report.

support local journalism