Pennsylvania School Districts Removing Students at an Alarming Rate

November 14, 2013 12:00 am

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New Study Looks at Impact of ‘Zero Tolerance’ Practices; Finds Black, Latino, and Students with Disabilities Most at Risk

November 14, 2013

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PHILADELPHIA – Pennsylvania’s 500 public school districts have dramatically increased their reliance on disciplinary practices that result in students being removed from school over the past 15 years, creating an educational crisis that goes far beyond the state’s largest school system in Philadelphia, a new study shows.

Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools, published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, represents a ground-breaking analysis that for the first time aggregates data from across the state for all major forms of school discipline. The research clearly shows a dramatic disparity in the treatment of black and Latino students and students with disabilities.

"Our report is intended to spark discussion within school communities and policy-making circles about what works best to create a healthy and safe school climate, not to point fingers," states the ACLU’s Harold Jordan, author of the report. "A critical examination of school discipline data and discipline practices is a first step."

In just the 2011-12 academic year alone, school districts issued more than 166,000 out-of-school suspensions, a rate of 10 suspensions per 100 students. Many students were suspended multiple times. Some 1,808 students were expelled from school, and 5,261 students were arrested by police. A school district’s size did not correlate with the high discipline rates.

York City School District (York County) led the state in its out-of-school suspension rate of 91.4 suspensions per 100 students, followed by Allegheny County districts Sto-Rox, Woodland Hills, Wilkinsburg Borough and Pittsburgh. Donegal School District (Lancaster County) led the state with its expulsion rate, 1.33 expulsions per 100 students, followed by Wilkinsburg Borough, Lebanon (Lebanon County), Cocalico (Lancaster) and Duquesne City (Allegheny County). Brownsville Area School District (Fayette and Washington counties) led the state in the rate of student arrests, 6.84 arrests per 100 students, followed by Tyrone Area (Blair, Huntingdon and Centre counties), Albert Gallatin Area (Fayette County), Tulpehocken Area (Berks County) and North East (Erie County)

According to the report:

  • Black students make up 13.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s students but received almost half of the out-of-school suspensions, at 48.25 percent.
  • Seventeen percent of black students were suspended at least once, a rate 5 times that of white students.
  • One out of every 10 Latino students was suspended at least once, one of the highest Latino suspension rates in the country.
  • Students with disabilities were almost twice as likely as other students to receive out-of-school suspensions – 11.1 percent versus 5.7 percent.

"Part of the problem is that under zero tolerance, a wide range of behaviors, from dress code violations to talking back, are now being punished as disorderly conduct, disruption, and defiant behavior," noted Jordan. "Those districts that have moved away from zero tolerance practices have found that other types of interventions can make a positive difference."

The report also found that Pennsylvania’s public school districts increasingly deploy police officers inside their schools without monitoring their impact. School Resource Officers were working in 87 school districts during the 2011-12 academic year, up from 26 districts in 2003-04.

"Expanded student contact with police raises troubling concerns about whether officers become involved in routine discipline matters that are not safety issues," said Jordan. "There is little evidence that the presence of full-time police has increased school safety." The study found that School Resource Officers work under no statewide standard set of guidelines regarding their role in schools or contact with students.

The report offers a series of recommendations, including conducting school- and district-level reviews of out-of-school suspensions and legal referral practices; removing students from school only when there is a real and immediate safety threat to the school community; minimizing the use of law enforcement in school discipline matters; adopting evidence-based strategies that have been demonstrated to improve school climate; and reviewing misconduct and incident patterns in schools with police officers.

"These zero tolerance practices have failed to make schools safer and, in the name of discipline, have deprived many young people of their opportunity to learn," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

The report draws on multiple sources, including federal, state, and local district data. It is available online at: Searchable data sets also are available online.

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