Philly schools modify "zero tolerance" policy

Posted: September 16, 2011

Buffeted by criticism that its expulsion process takes too long and unfairly tosses out students for minor offenses, the Philadelphia School District has modified its "zero tolerance" policy by creating a committee to review cases.

Meeting once a week, the committee early on will flag cases in which students should not be expelled, thereby limiting the time they may have to spend in a disciplinary school. Other cases will be sent to formal hearings.

The move, which introduces more discretion to the discipline process, is likely to result in fewer expulsions in the 151,000-student district, officials said. Last year, 181 students were expelled.

"There's been an outcry from the community in all areas . . . for evaluation of the process overall," said Nicky Charles, deputy chief of staff for the School Reform Commission, the district's governing body, which ultimately rules on whether to expel students. "There are contradicting camps, and it's our responsibility to take all of it into consideration."

Some argue that the district should be stricter with disruptive students to keep schools safe. Others decry what they see as a heavy-handed disciplinary approach that can criminalize students at a young age.

The new approach, being rolled out this month, represents a middle ground between how expulsions were handled under former CEO Paul Vallas, who left in 2007, and former Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, who left last month.

Under Vallas, the district discontinued expulsions and sent problem students directly to disciplinary schools, which is where most end up after expulsion.

By law, the district is required to provide education to expelled students if parents do not enroll their child elsewhere. The law does not spell out how much education must be provided. Philadelphia has decided to offer a full education in one of its roughly half-dozen disciplinary schools, which have specialized curriculum, counseling, and tight security.

Ackerman reinstituted expulsions in 2008 as called for by former Safe Schools Advocate Jack Stollsteimer, resulting in a couple of hundred cases each year. Stollsteimer had argued that federal and state law require a one-year expulsion in weapons cases, but conceded that the superintendent can make exceptions.

With zero tolerance in effect, SRC commissioners regularly heard complaints that discretion was needed in cases where students inadvertently brought scissors into school or had a weapon for protection or were caught with a small amount of marijuana.

A report last January by local and national groups on discipline asserted that the district overused expulsions, as well as suspensions and transfers to disciplinary school. The report, researched and written by Youth United for Change, a local student advocacy group; the Education Law Center in Philadelphia; and the Advancement Project, a Washington civil rights organization, also said the discipline policy too often targeted black and Latino students.

This month, a draft report by a 100-member blue-ribbon commission convened by Mayor Nutter and Ackerman called for modifications in zero tolerance.

The commission cited "a lack of clarity and consistency in the implementation" of the student code of conduct and discipline procedures. It recommended changes to allow for "appropriate discretion."

A seven-part series in The Inquirer last spring found that despite the policy of zero tolerance, violence is widespread and underreported, and the district fails to use best safety practices across its schools and offers too little counseling and support.

Education advocates said they were cautiously optimistic about the new expulsion process.

"It seems like an encouraging first step, but we think they have a whole lot more to go," said Judith Browne Dianis, codirector of the Advancement Project. "We hope this is not window dressing, that they are really looking at these cases and really determining whether students should be deprived of an education for the incident."

David Lapp, a staff attorney at the Education Law Center, pointed out that the commission threw out a significant number of expulsions that came before it, an indication that the policy was not working.

"There were too many cases without merit being sent there to begin with," he said.

Last year, 237 students who had hearings were recommended to the commission for expulsion. The commission voted to expel 181 - 26 permanently and 155 temporarily - and denied 56 cases. The students were expelled for a variety of infractions, including weapons, drugs, and assaults.

Other cases from last year were rolled into this year. The new committee already has reviewed 90 of them, recommending fewer than 10 for expulsion, said Rachel Holzman, assistant general counsel.

Stollsteimer, the former safety advocate, cautioned that the district must uphold the law. He said that as a rule, expulsions can't be avoided in weapons cases.

"That certainly makes me nervous, every time they back away from a policy that was intended to make the schools safer," Stollsteimer said.

The district ran expulsion hearings three days a week last year, paying outside counsel and hearing officers to oversee them. By reducing the number of hearings, the new process is likely to result in savings for the cash-strapped district.

The district recently laid off three employees who dealt with expulsions.

District officials said they could not provide a budget amount spent on expulsions last year.

Eight administrators will serve on the new committee, from offices such as school safety, legal, counseling, and special education.

Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, said that a parent and teacher also should be on the committee, and that the committee should look at whether schools are taking appropriate steps to intervene in a troubled child's life early and often.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or

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