A better code of conduct for Philly students

Posted: August 23, 2012

THE SRC DID the right thing in adopting a new code of conduct for students starting the new school year. The new code modifies the "zero tolerance" policy that has been in place for about 10 years and will give principals and administrators more leeway in determining the proper punishment for infractions.

Those concerned about the rate of violence in the city's public schools - and they have cause to be concerned - should not interpret the revision of "zero tolerance" as greater tolerance for bad behavior; rather, it acknowledges that there is a wide range of behaviors, not all of which should be criminalized.

For example, weapons in schools are a problem, but over the years the definition of what constitutes a weapon in school, coupled with zero tolerance, has often led to abuses. One such example: A 6-year-old in York, Pa., was suspended for having a nail clipper in his backpack.

Given the problems still found in the city's schools, it's clear the one-size-fits-all approach to maintaining discipline - which can include expulsions for minor infractions, such as violations of dress codes, as well as more serious problems - hasn't worked.

In fact, the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies - many of which were imposed after the Columbine shooting - has been questioned for some time. Last year, a report by three groups, including a civil-rights organization and the Education Law Center, said that the policy has made Philadelphia schools less safe, and that the policy often targets black and Latino students.

Many researchers and scholars have echoed these concerns. Zero tolerance is not only ineffective in reducing violence or crime in schools but has also created a "school-to-prison pipeline." Students who are routinely expelled, suspended multiple times or even arrested in school find themselves on a path to incarceration; in fact, young people who drop out of high school, many after expulsions and suspensions, are eight times more likely to land in prison than students who graduate. According to one study published by the Forum on Public Policy Online, zero-tolerance policies "have no measureable impact on school safety, but are associated with a number of negative effects - racial disproportionality, increased suspensions and expulsions, elevated dropout rates, and multiple legal issues related to due process. A growing critique of these policies has lead to calls for reform and alternatives."

SRC member Lorene Cary spearheaded the move to adopt a new code of conduct, and used as a blueprint a report issued last year by a blue-ribbon commission on safe schools. That report followed soon after an Inquirer investigation into Philadelphia schools that found increased violence and a breakdown of procedures on reporting that violence.

In the end, though, we have to realize that the real problem is not violent schools. The problem is a violent city. Too many children carry the aftershocks of their own lives of violence, poverty, crime and neglect into the schools. With diminishing resources to spend on the problem, there are few simple solutions. The district's attempt to turn the tide with interventions and more-positive approaches is a valiant effort. Parents and community leaders must be part of that effort.

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