The injustice schools ignore

According to The Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Assault on Learning,” Philadelphia’s public schools have a bit of a violence problem.

From 2005-06 through 2009-10, the district reported 30,333 serious incidents, including 19,752 assaults, 4,327 weapons infractions, 2,037 drug- and alcohol-related violations, and 1,186 robberies. Students were beaten by their peers in libraries and had their hair pulled out by gangs. Teachers were assaulted more than 4,000 times.

So how has the School Reform Commission responded? By easing its student code of conduct and other disciplinary policies. In particular, the commission wants to cut down on out-of-school suspensions. . . .

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “The injustice schools ignore.”  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

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The Day Discipline Died in Philadelphia Public Schools

by Christopher Paslay

The Philadelphia School District’s revised code of conduct is evidence that officials have thrown in the towel when it comes to student discipline. 

Mark the date: 8/16/12.  That was the day discipline officially died in Philadelphia public schools.  Not that discipline was alive and well to begin with.  In many schools throughout the city it was hanging on by a thread, a brain dead body with a faint pulse connected to a life-support machine with a bunch of tubes running out of its arms.

Consider these facts: From 2005-06 through 2009-10, the district reported 30,333 serious incidents.  There were 19,752 assaults, 4,327 weapons infractions, 2,037 drug and alcohol related violations, and 1,186 robberies.  Students were beaten by their peers in libraries and had their hair pulled out by gangs in the hall.  Teachers were assaulted over 4,000 times.

In the 2007-08 school year alone, there were nearly 15,000 criminal incidents reported in Philadelphia public schools.  According to data published in the 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.

Tragically, almost half of the most serious cases were not reported to police.  Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham wrote that “the most serious offenders—including those who assaulted teachers—were neither expelled nor transferred to alternative education.”  She also added: “Just 24 percent of the 1,728 students who assaulted teachers were removed from regular education classrooms, and only 30 percent of them were charged by police . . .”

In fact, from 2006 to 2008, not a single student was expelled from the Philadelphia School District.

Over the last five years, discipline has been hanging on by a thread.  Not anymore.  Yesterday the School Reform Commission voted to officially pull the plug on the dying animal.  School leaders are being instructed to cut down on out-of-school suspensions, and loosen punishments as a response to discipline violations as a whole.  In particular, principals can no longer suspend a student for profanity, cellphone or uniform infractions.  So when an algebra teacher is in the middle of a lesson on the order of operations and a student is interrupting the class by talking loudly on his cellphone, and the teacher says, excuse me, put that away, and the student says, fuck you, I’m in the middle of a call here, and the teacher says, give me that cellphone now, and the student says, bitch, go fuck yourself, a suspension is not in order.  Not even when a student continues this behavior on a regular basis, and ruins everyone’s education in the process.

According to a story in today’s Inquirer:

The focus now is on in-school intervention.

“Though there can be no excuse for behavior that harms or disrupts, there may be reasons that caring adults in school need to understand. We educate the whole child,” the code declares. It lists a range of in-school intervention that should be employed, from “get a student’s attention by calling his/her name in a calm voice” and “address the student in private” to drawing up behavioral contracts.

How might this work in real life?  Here’s a scenario:

Teacher (trying to teach the class):  Put away that cellphone. 

Student: Man, I’m in the middle of a call, yo.  It’s my mom.  It’s an emergency.

Teacher (whispering calmly to the student): Darryl, you can’t use the phone in class.  Remember our behavior contract?  Can you see me in the hallway, please?

Student:  Bitch, get the fuck outta my face!

Greg Shannon, who is in charge of the school district’s disciplinary hearings and expulsions, said schools need to find ways to work with children and patiently figure out why they continue to break the rules: “We have to say, ‘Why are you coming to school out of uniform, and what can we do to support you? What can we do to get you in uniform, or get you a uniform?’”

How might this work in real life?  Here’s a scenario:

Teacher (being patient): Stacy, your skirt is too high and your shirt is too low cut.  We talked about this, remember?  Where is the uniform I gave you?  You haven’t worn it in three weeks?

Student: That golf shirt is corny.  I ain’t tryin’ to wear that uniform.

Teacher: But you are dressed inappropriately.  Is there a problem at home?  Do you need to talk about something?

Student:  Bitch, mind your business.  You ain’t my mom.

Lorene Cary, the head of the SRC’s safety committee, said, “The idea is that the best way to be safer is to change our culture to a safe culture.  We really have looked at prevention.”

Prevention?  Really?  What a novel idea (as if principals and teachers haven’t been trying prevention for decades).  What school district leaders have yet to answer is what should be done with students who continue to rob their hardworking classmates of an education even after preventative interventions such as restorative justice, positive behavioral supports, and peer mediation are used?  What do teachers and principals do then?

The answer: nothing.  Nothing is done.  Because of pressure from civil rights groups, because of pressure from toxic progressive organizations such as the Education Law Center, Youth United for Change, the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools, and the Philadelphia Student Union, the rights of violent and unruly children supersede the rights of the majority of Philadelphia’s hardworking students trying to get an education.  Instead of suspending such children and placing them in alternative learning environments where they can get the remediation they need (and their classmates can finally have a chance to learn), these incorrigible youth are forced to coexist in classrooms with their peers where they ruin everyone’s education.

Now the SRC, as well as Superintendent William Hite, are on board with this mission: robbing our city’s hardworking children of their educations.  They are now bowing to the notion that the school district’s code of discipline is racist, is disenfranchising innocent children, and is not working; they are buying into Youth United for Change’s canard that the school district’s discipline policies are creating a “pipeline to prison.”

It is pathetic.  The code of conduct doesn’t work because the district doesn’t have the guts to enforce it.  Overall, policies have no teeth and teachers and principals get inadequate backing and support.  Parents and community leaders are absolved of all responsibility and the students themselves are no longer held accountable for their own behavior.  Why?  Because it’s too difficult a battle for the district to fight.  Like a parent who gives into his child because he doesn’t have the energy to enforce his own rules, the school district is taking the easy way out.

Yesterday’s decision to fundamentally revise the student code of conduct was the death blow to school discipline as we know it.  It appears that the SRC, as well as Superintendent Hite, have officially washed their hands of the whole mess.

God help the School District of Philadelphia, and the tens of thousands of hardworking children who will have their right to an education violated now more than ever.

Dr. Hite forgoes $120,000 severance; will show up one month late for work

by Christopher Paslay

Dr. William Hite, Philadelphia’s new superintendent of schools, is reportedly giving up his severance package with Prince George’s County Schools in Maryland to start work in Philadelphia by October 1st, one month after the school year begins.     

It appears that Dr. William Hite will take the high road—unlike his predecessor Dr. Arlene Ackerman.  According to a story in Wednesday’s Inquirer:

His contract with Prince George’s stipulated that to receive severance pay — six months salary, or $125,000 — Hite would have to give 120 days notice, which would have him working into November, Hite explained.

Instead, Hite made a deal to forgo his severance and give 60 days notice, he said.

His official last day with Prince George’s will be Sept. 30, the district announced Monday.

Dr. Hite’s gesture puts him ahead of Dr. Ackerman, the queen of the urban superintendent severance package.  Last year, Ackerman negotiated a $1 million severance package from the SRC, and then filed for unemployment after receiving it.  In 2006, she was awarded $375,000 in severance pay from the San Francisco public schools, then tried to sue the district claiming she was owed an additional $172,000 in unused benefits; amazingly, all this was allowed to take place after Ackerman’s tumultuous stint as Washington D.C.’s schools’ chief.

Kudos to Dr. Hite for being a bit more scrupulous and forgoing his $120,000 severance package from the Prince George County district in Maryland (at this point it is not clear whether he will lose all or some of this money).

This gesture, however, does not excuse the fact that he will be starting as Philadelphia’s schools’ chief one month after the school year begins.  The fact that he was hired by the SRC on June 29th—after a nearly six month long superintendent search process—does raise some questions.  Was his October 1st start date made known during the search process?  If so, why would the SRC agree to this?  Or did the fact that he will be showing up to work one month late come to light after he was hired, forcing the SRC into a corner? 

The math doesn’t seem to add up here, either.  Dr. Hite was hired by the SRC on June 29th.  If he put in his notice to Prince George County on July 1st, wouldn’t 60 days take us to September 1st, the start of the school year?  How does giving 60 days notice bring us to October 1st?  This would be 90 days notice (92 days, actually).   

Either way, the SRC’s planning and scheduling leaves much to be desired.  With all due respect to Dr. Hite, he should have had his previous business in order before applying for the job in Philadelphia. 

One of the reasons large urban schools districts fail—and continue to lag behind the suburbs—is because too many of their working parts (parents, students, central management, etc.) fail to meet deadlines, causing a major ripple effect that negatively impacts everyone.  If the SRC and the superintendent of schools can’t get things rolling on time, what example does this set for our students?  If Dr. Hite can show up late for school, why can’t they? 

As I wrote in my June 27th post, being “on time” is not a matter of perspective.  Unfortunately, this kind of time management and value system appears to have slipped the minds of Philadelphia School District leaders.