The incident was a classic teen Romeo caper: A Chester High School senior sneaked on a bus for a field trip he wasn't supposed to take, all because he wanted a girl's "digits" - her phone number.

He told administrators he expected to be suspended, the usual punishment for breaking the rules. But they had a surprise for him. Instead of getting booted out, he'd have to perform school service, whether helping out with maintenance, sorting books, organizing closets, even working events such as the senior girls' tea.

"We used to be a place where, quite frankly, children were treated like criminals. It wasn't just the norm, it was the expectation," said Chester Upland Superintendent Gregory Shannon, who before taking the helm of the Delaware County district in 2013 was deputy chief of student discipline for the Philadelphia schools.

Shannon and his team have tried to toss that expectation out the window in the poverty-plagued district. Chester Upland has joined a growing number of districts across the state, and the nation, in abandoning the "zero tolerance" policies that proliferated in the wake of the deadly mass school shooting at Columbine in 1999. At first intended to keep weapons out of schools, the policies were broadened to include lesser violations, becoming the norm in the 2000s.

They also drew criticism from experts who found the mandated punishments often extreme, if not ridiculous, for the nature of the offenses.

Today, while serious occurrences such as those involving weapons are still dealt with harshly, schools that once suspended, expelled, or even called in police for infractions as minor as cursing are using more empathetic strategies that keep kids in class, without letting them off the hook for misbehavior.

The Chester Upland, Philadelphia, and Southeast Delco districts have posted steep declines in out-of-school suspensions after being flagged in a groundbreaking 2013 report by the Pennsylvania ACLU called "Beyond Zero Tolerance." The study found that skyrocketing suspension rates in the state had not only inflated minor infractions into major offenses, but also disproportionately targeted nonwhites by ratios as high as 5-1.

From 2012 to 2015, suspensions dropped by nearly 64 percent in Chester Upland, from 1,080 to 388; by 36 percent in Southeast Delco, from 1,974 to 1,269; and by 21 percent in Philadelphia, from 39,981 to 31,769, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's annual Safe Schools Report.

Statewide, out-of-school suspensions decreased from 183,213 to 132,280 in the same time frame.

New Jersey has recorded a less dramatic drop in suspensions, although those of 10 days' duration fell 26 percent in the last three years.

Instead of turning them loose on the streets, school officials say, they are trying to understand the stresses that students bring to the classroom, and intervening before bad behavior escalates. As Shannon said, "Instead of confrontation, we engage them in 'carefrontation.'

"What we don't want to do," he said, "is suspend students out of school when they should be engaged in the instructional program."

Chester Upland has hired two conflict-resolution specialists to intervene in school squabbles and two community liaisons to keep tabs on what is happening on the streets that might carry over into school.

Students work with staff on alternatives to suspension, but they can elect to be suspended, said Chester High principal Constance McAlister. "Rarely, if ever," she added, do they opt for the latter.

The most effective schools respond to missteps on a case-by-case basis that fits the students' circumstances and needs, according to a 2013 report from the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York nonprofit that works with government on criminal and social justice issues. The report cites evidence that a positive climate not only lowers overall levels of violence in school, but also may have a beneficial effect on youth behavior outside school.

"There's no magic fairy dust, but all the studies show if you put in the time to create these environments where expectations are clear, and take time to recognize positive behavior, you earn teaching time back," said Jody Greenblatt, who oversees "school climate" issues, including disciplinary policies, for the Philadelphia schools.

Stephen Butz, superintendent in Southeast Delco, said district officials have trained teachers to avoid suspensions in favor of mediation and getting students to own up to their actions.

In Chester Upland, Ray Thompson, acting assistant principal at Toby Farms Intermediate School, recalled an episode in which one of the high school's better students borrowed his brother's coat, which had a screwdriver in the pocket.

"Boom, out of school for 10 days," Thompson said.

Deborah Gordon Klehr of the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center recalled a similar incident in the city, when a middle-school student found a smashed pencil sharpener during recess and turned it over to a teacher. School officials tried to suspend him for "possession of a weapon" because of the blade inside.

"Students who are suspended - particularly those suspended more than once - are more likely to fall behind academically, be disengaged, or drop out of school," said Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for the Pennsylvania ACLU.

"When they're outside of school, they're not getting the education they need," said Richard Dunlap, superintendent of the Upper Darby School District.

Upper Darby was one of four local districts singled out for criticism in the 2013 Pennsylvania ACLU report. Unlike Chester Upland, Philadelphia, and Southeast Delco, suspensions there rose, from 4,253 in 2012 to 4,643 last year.

The increase has irked parent activists such as Joy Miller. "I know there has to be some sort of corrective process," she said, "but I don't think [suspensions] are helpful."

However, Dunlap said that Upper Darby has been working with the ACLU and the Education Law Center to develop new programs, including diversity training for teachers and staff and more "positive behavioral rewards" for students' good conduct, especially in grade school.

The fact that suspensions are climbing is a concern, he said. But the programs are beginning to take hold at the high school, where the number of suspension days has dropped from 4,400 in 2014 to 3,300 last year, he said.

"This isn't easy, where you can just flip a switch and do it," Dunlap said.

The ACLU report found that across Pennsylvania, a black male student was five times more likely to be suspended than a white male student. Jordan blamed several factors - from bias among officials who hand out discipline, to rules on issues such as clothing or hairstyle that might discriminate against certain racial or ethnic groups.

Last November, a group of African American parents accused the Upper Dublin School District, in Montgomery County, of discriminating against black students by giving them more out-of-school suspensions and placing them in lower-level courses. In the complaint to the U.S. Department of Education and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the parents said that black students made up 7.3 percent of Upper Dublin's population, but received 45 percent of the suspensions in 2014. The case is pending.

The ACLU of New Jersey filed a complaint with the state Department of Education last year, alleging that the South Orange/Maplewood School District in Essex County disciplined black students and those with disabilities at 10 times the rate of nondisabled white students.

While the decrease in suspensions in the Philadelphia schools is significant, Klehr said, the punishments still target a disproportionate number of African Americans and students with disabilities. And she called it "troubling" that more than 400 kindergarten students were suspended.

"There is room for improvement," she said.

In Chester Upland, teachers union president Michele Paulick agrees that students should not be suspended for minor breaches. But, she said, she fears that too many will be let off the hook. For instance, students are not allowed to use cellphones in school, but rarely do administrators take them away, she said.

There's no way to manage "large volumes of students just disregarding the code of conduct," she said. "We have to be careful that we still want the kids to understand that there are consequences for their actions."

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