The Zero Tolerance Debate Continued

by Christopher Paslay


On January 31st, Ron Whitehorne, a former city schoolteacher and current Philadelphia Public School Notebook blogger, wrote a response to my recent Inquirer commentary “Less than ‘zero tolerance’.”  


Whitehorne pointed out the fact that my op-ed piece, which argued that the Philadelphia School District’s discipline polices are quite tolerant and permissive, didn’t adequately address data presented in Youth United for Change’s report, “Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia.” 


“Significantly, Paslay does not deal with the data the report assembles that paint a picture of a school system that, more than in the past, and more than any other district in the state, relies on police and beefed up school security, out of school suspension, and placements in disciplinary schools to maintain order.”


With that said, I’d like to deal with this issue now.  Why does the Philadelphia School District rely on beefed up school security, out of school suspensions, and placements in disciplinary schools to maintain order?  Because city schools, more than the rest of the state, deal with the most serious and extreme discipline issues. 


In the 2007-08 school year, there were nearly 15,000 criminal incidents reported in Philadelphia public schools.  According to data published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 1,728 students assaulted teachers, 479 weapons were discovered inside elementary and middle school hallways and classrooms, and 357 weapons were found in high schools.  Interestingly, these offenses weren’t part of the typical “low-level” youth behaviors highlighted in YUC’s neatly packaged “report.”          


Sadly, such behavior is quite common.  In June of 2009 the Inquirer obtained a folder of reports detailing discipline incidents that occurred in Philadelphia city schools from June 1-5.  In an editorial headlined “Can’t learn in bad schools,” the Inquirer wrote: “The incidents range from students bringing knives and guns to school, masturbating in class, going to school drunk, pulling down other students’ pants, making death threats, punching a teacher in the face, stealing thousands of dollars worth of equipment, throwing an eraser at a teacher’s head, and stuffing feces in bathroom sinks.”


The Inquirer editorial also mentioned an incident where a teacher asked a student to stop eating food in class.  When the student refused, the teacher tried to take the food and was then smacked in the face by the student.  In another part of the city during that same week, the editorial noted, an elementary student grabbed a fire extinguisher from a hallway and began spraying a teacher in the face.


Is this just “typical behavior “of children and youth?


Tragically, such data is actually underreported in the district; from 2005 to 2008, not a single student was expelled from the district.  In fact, the district was violating state laws by not expelling the scores of students who were caught bringing a gun to school. 


As I wrote in my Inquirer piece, district officials must decide how they want to view the city’s schools: as institutions of learning or shelters for chronic rule-breakers.  Of course, Ron Whitehorne insists this choice need not exist:   


“Paslay’s article presents us with a false choice – shelters for troubled children or schools for the hardworking and well behaved. . . . We do not have two distinct populations: one “troubled”, the other, hard working and well behaved. Instead, there is an enormously diverse population of learners, almost all of whom, given the right circumstances, supports, and constraints, can be productive and successful. The democratic function of public education is to make sure that opportunity is there for all.”


Unfortunately, outside of the home and community, outside of the influence of caring parents and neighborhood role models, the right “circumstances, supports, and constraints” Whitehorne speaks of are limited; it’s both unfair and irresponsible to expect overwhelmed and understaffed city schools to be mothers, fathers, counselors, behavior therapists, instructors, and the provider of a dozen other social services.   


The Philadelphia School District is fulfilling its democratic function and giving all students an equal opportunity to learn.  The problem is that too many students and their parents are throwing this opportunity away.  Resources are limited.  Schools and teachers can only spend so much time dealing with the incorrigible and unruly.  Behavior remediations are I place, but sooner or later the rights of the hard-working majority must come first; these students are the real victims in the system. 


There is one foolproof solution to the district’s zero tolerance policy that Ron Whitehorne and Youth United for Change have failed to consider, of course: simply following school rules. 


This might be an area YUC might want to explore more deeply.              


2 thoughts on “The Zero Tolerance Debate Continued

  1. Bravo, Mr. Paslay. In the year and a half I have worked in this district I have been shoved by students 3 times – just because I was trying to preserve the “circumstances, supports, and constraints” of my school. Never mind the times that I have been cursed, mocked and had things thrown at me by others in our “population of learners.”

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