The District has relied on a zero-tolerance discipline policy, but this policy alienates students and has an adverse effect on school climate. The District has not fully capitalized on more constructive means, which include positive behavior support, peer mediation, and restorative justice approaches.
The Commission heard from multiple witnesses with considerable concern about the District's zero-tolerance policy, which imposes automatic out-of-school suspension for perpetrators of intergroup conflicts in schools. Many witnesses felt that this policy's heavy-handed approach made it more difficult for students to succeed in school. Using punishment as a first response contributes to the school environment we seek to change and zero tolerance is a serious impediment to fostering an atmosphere of intergroup harmony.
One student organizer told us, "Zero tolerance is a policy that overreacts to most disciplinary situations that could be handled differently. What I mean by this is students' educations are at stake because the administration is focused more on keeping kids in line than their education. During the '07-'08 school year 4,361 were taken into police custody and 3,573 students were arrested."
Another student organizer pointed out this policy's negative effects on the school environment: "When you walk into our school, the first thing you see are bars on the window... That reminds us how many of our schools are like police states... [Y]ou have to go through metal detectors and you are checked like a prisoner. Sometimes we even get body searched... It is hard for us to learn when we are treated more like prisoners than students... We have more security guards than we have counselors."
The zero tolerance disciplinary actions also appear to do little to address the roots of problematic behavior. As one community organizer told us, "Students have complicated issues. It's not right to get rid of a student because we don't want to flesh out what's going on with them. We've worked with the Education Law Center to help get students back into schools because we feel as though that zero tolerance is denying students their right to an education."
Some witnesses asserted that the zero-tolerance policy worked at cross-purposes with stated District goals to eliminate harassment and build a climate of intergroup harmony, and exacerbated the very problem they were attempting to address. An education advocate stressed that, "The District should acknowledge the ineffectiveness of zero tolerance and commit itself to sending a single consistent message of helping difficult students rather than alienating them. The climate of alienation contributes to greater disruption and violence in general, and greater ethnic hostility in particular."
Several community advocates spoke to the limitation of the District's current actions and the need to look for alternative approaches. As one nonprofit representative said, "Philadelphia suspends a lot of students. In 2008/2009, 46,350. We took a very close look at that... A lot of those students were suspended for things that are not right, and we need to begin to think about other ways of handling those incidents. There were 15,000...for disruption, and this was disruption that did not include an act of violence or destruction of school property. 3,800 were for offensive language. I agree, offensive language is not a good thing and needs to be dealt with. I don't believe that you hand students out-of-school suspensions for things like that. We need to invest in something different. 1,150 suspensions of the 46,000 for were for dress code violations... I don't believe we can suspend our way out of the situation [and the District needs to] invest in other ways of looking at things."