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

Public School Notebook Advocates Compromising Rights of Many for Rights of Few

by Christopher Paslay

The Notebook continues to lobby to keep violent and unruly students in classrooms, suggesting that America’s discipline policies are racist and culturally insensitive.  

Despite recent accolades from the New York Times and the Philadelphia City Paper for their investigative reporting, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook remains committed to its roots: lobbying for the disenfranchised on the fringes of the educational system.  As a result, they often compromise the rights of the many to stand up for the rights of the few.         

This was the case when the Notebook supported the conclusions drawn by Youth United for Change’s two controversial reports—“Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia” and “Pushed Out”—both of which rely heavily on the testimonies of disgruntled youth to paint dropouts and chronic rule breakers as victims of an intolerant and racist school system.  Both lobby for keeping incorrigible students in classrooms where they consistently rob other children of their right to learn; the Notebook’s Winter 2009 article “A growing expulsion pipeline” did much of the same.       

Most recently, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, the Notebook ran the story “Expulsion epidemic draws national attention,” which also lobbies to keep problem students in schools, calling for alternative forms of remediation that are often unrealistic or achieve limited success.  The story, like the YUC reports, portrays students expelled from schools across the country as victims caught in an oppressive and racist system, despite the findings of reports such as the Inquirer’sAssault on Learning,” which reveals how disruptive student behavior in Philadelphia schools negatively impacts achievement and learning. 

To protect the rights of the hardworking 90 percent of America’s children struggling to learn in environments tainted by the violent and unruly, I wrote a comment on the Notebook’s website trying to shed some light on the issue:   

“Expulsions in America’s public schools do not happen willy-nilly.  Students are given due process and granted a hearing before they are removed from the system.  In addition, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) protects students with anger management issues and the emotionally disturbed (many minorities are diagnosed as such) from being removed from a school, and the “Stay-Put Provision” law allows such students to remain in school even during the actual hearings.  In Philadelphia from 2002 – 2008, not a single student was expelled from the District.  Not that the District is free from violence, or those who perpetrate violence against other students; just read the Inquirer’s “Assault on Learning” series and look at the numbers.  It is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to expel a student from a district (in Philadelphia, even the “permanently expelled” can reapply for admission after their punishment is served), and this is in light of the fact that many serious discipline incidents go unreported.    

[Your article] bills expulsion as an unfair “epidemic” gaining “national attention,” but it ignores the everyday offenses of troubled youth and focuses on the outliers.  The real victims in this situation are the 85-90 percent of America’s public school children who are being held hostage by the violent and unruly few.  Yet somehow the Notebook consistently fails to address THIS issue.  They campaign against a discipline system that is already lacking real teeth, which is counterproductive to establishing a culture of learning in all schools.  If we want to save the education of the masses, we should advocate for better parenting, call for a return of traditional values in our schools and communities, and demand that ALL children respect each other, as well as their teachers, parents, and other authority figures. . . .”

Paul Socolar, the Notebook’s editor, responded to my post by writing the following:

“Some quick comments from the editor to explain the Notebook’s continued interest in this topic of high rates of expulsion as an issue of educational quality and equity.

Philadelphians ought to be considering what approaches to discipline and to curtailing school violence are effective. We know that what many schools are doing now is not effective. There is a growing body of evidence in support of less punitive approaches to school discipline such as restorative justice. We are open to other topics for our reporting. We haven’t seen a similar body of evidence that more systematic implementation of the traditional approach of suspensions and transfers to disciplinary schools advocated here by commenters is effective.

In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world (that hasn’t alleviated high crime rates), the issue of whether harsh school disciplinary policies not only mirror our ineffective criminal justice policies but also create a school-to-prison pipeline is a real concern to many in Philadelphia.

Study after study provides evidence that harsh disciplinary actions are not meted out in a color-blind fashion. This article points to the finding from North Carolina that Black students were more than twice as likely to be suspended for a first-time cell phone offense compared to White students. . . .”

I followed-up Socolar’s comments with the following post on the Notebook (Socolar never did address the fact that the Notebook compromises the rights of the many for the rights of the few):

“. . . Schools must do what they can to address and remediate the behavioral and psychological problems of their students, but there will come a time when a line must be drawn.  There IS a protocol that public schools follow, and by law, a series of interventions in most cases DOES take place before an expulsion.  But when these interventions meet with limited success (including Positive Behavior Supports and Restorative Justice, both of which can only be done effectively in small, one-on-one situations), there will need to be a policy in place to keep the learning environment safe and organized, a policy that allows the majority of hard working students to get an education, and that policy is expulsion. 

As for The Notebook’s obsession with race and their need to keep reminding everyone that expulsions “are not meted out in a color-blind fashion,” I’d like to ask what they are insinuating by this?  It seems clear that they are suggesting that teachers and administrators in public schools are either racist, or culturally ignorant or insensitive.  As an urban schoolteacher of 15 years, as a coach, as a mentor, and as a citizen of Philadelphia, I would have to beg to differ.  Although this may have been the case 30 years ago (or in very limited situations today), I think the disparity in disciplinary measures by race has more to do with environmental factors such as poverty, education and employment; it’s documented that a higher number of minorities are impoverished, have a higher incidence of out-of-wedlock births, have poor nutrition, etc.  These factors all impact a student’s behavior.  Likewise, these factors impact a student’s ATTITUDE when responding to authority, which may explain why a cooperative student, who surrenders his cellphone with little resistance, may not get suspended for the infraction, while another student, who has a difficult home life and has not learned to deal with authority in a positive manner, might get hit with a suspension for a simple cellphone violation. 

The hardworking motivated students should have a right to learn.  Generally speaking, expulsions are the only reasonable way to accomplish this, in light of the tragic condition of American families, poor parenting, society’s attitude of entitlement, and the overall decline in respect for authority.”

This comment was not rebutted by the editor.

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.              


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

YUC Report Uses Questionable Methodology

by Christopher Paslay


Discipline policies in Philly schools turn innocent youth into criminals.  Metal detectors cause children to break rules.  Removing violent and disruptive students from classrooms lowers achievement and makes schools less safe. 


These are just three of the many outrageous conclusions drawn in Youth United for Change’s recent report entitled Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying Educational Opportunities and Creating a Pathway to Prison.  In a nutshell, the study absolves chronic rule-breakers of basic responsibility for their own behavior and portrays violent and unruly students as powerless victims caught in an oppressive disciplinary system.


Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this “report” is its methodology.  As its authors noted on more than one occasion in the study, the Philadelphia School District did not release the actual case records detailing the causes behind student suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and referrals to alternative school placements; much of this information is protected under state privacy laws. 


So without any hard data or actual facts on the reasons why students were disciplined in the first place, United Youth for Change, in conjunction with the Advancement Project and the Education Law Center, piecemealed their report together by surveying several hundred random Philadelphia school students; they did not adequately consult school administrators, or disciplinarians, or anyone with objective firsthand knowledge of district discipline policies.


Interestingly, a number of the students interviewed just happened to be the very disgruntled rule-breakers facing discipline actions by the district.  More disturbing was the fact that some of the students who provided testimony for the study were actually YUC members!  Talk about having zero regard for research ethics and integrity.


Tragically, what the YUC report doesn’t reveal is that the true victims in this situation (other than the YUC members who’ve been indoctrinated by unscrupulous adults) are the cooperative students who make-up 85 to 90 percent of Philadelphia public schools, those diligent, hard-working students whose educations get compromised on a daily basis by the violent and disruptive actions of the incorrigible few. 


The question is, who’s looking out for their rights?  Who’s teaching these children that in order to become truly empowered, they must become drivers on the road of life and not get tricked into remaining powerless passengers


Apparently, no one associated with YUC or this unethical, misguided report.