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.              


A Former Philadelphia Teacher-Leader’s Thoughts on School Discipline

by Rick Ryder

As a retired Philly teacher and teacher leader, I have 40 years experience in the evolution of school discipline. Although I was fortunate in that I personally had minimal class control problems, I have coached, trained and supported literally hundreds of teachers, those with years of experience and those just beginning. It is clear to me as I see talented, caring, dedicated, and creative teachers driven from the profession because their students say and do whatever they wish with no actual consequences, that the discipline code must be revised.

Paslay’s final three paragraphs summarize the problem as well as I have ever seen (“Less than ‘zero tolerance,’” Inquirer opinion, 1/27/11). We can either turn schools into social service agencies where diplomas are awarded regardless of attendance or academic achievement, or we can refocus on learning and academics, which requires that the two or three students in most classes who impede instruction be removed until their behavior and/or motivation no longer hinders those who actually wish to learn. Unfortunately, this cannot often be achieved by a three day suspension followed by a reinstatement and return to class disruption.

I believe that the needs of the vast majority of students who wish to learn outweighs the rights of the few who act with impunity. The consequences of the current policies are tragic and ironic.  When students who do no work pass a class because a CSAP form isn’t filled out properly, when an emotionally disturbed special education student is mainstreamed to fulfill an IEP, curses out a teacher and is back in class 20 minutes later, students who would do classwork and behave properly, decide that, in the absence of consequences, they, too, will not do classwork or respect the teacher. Ironically, those educators who think that they are helping students get a second chance are actually taking away any chance of success from the majority.

Mr. Paslay is exactly right when he says we must decide the purpose of our schools. If it is indeed to educate, teachers must be given the tools to deal with disciplinary issues, rather than burdened by useless paperwork which goes nowhere and does nothing other discouraging teachers from taking any disciplinary actions at all. If it is to socialize or teach conflict resolution, we should acknowledge that, and set up a parallel system where true learning can occur and consequences are enforced.

 I am not addressing criminal behavior such as selling drugs, bringing drugs to school or assaulting a teacher. These are being handled properly, or at least, enforced more stringently than in the past. I am writing about the make or break issues of the teacher controlling a classroom and a student who does not do the required classwork passing a class. I loved my career as a teacher, formed strong bonds with many, many students, and hope to see that experience possible for the current generation of teachers.

Less than ‘zero tolerance’

“The Philadelphia School District’s zero-tolerance discipline policy is having a ‘devastating’ effect on students, particularly minorities, according to a recent report by Youth United for Change, the Advancement Project, and the Education Law Center. The authors of the report claim that students are punished too harshly for minor infractions, which makes city schools less safe and lowers students’ academic performance.

A quick look at the district’s Code of Student Conduct, however, shows that by most standards, it’s quite tolerant.”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Less than ‘zero tolerance'”.  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay