Public schools in Philadelphia and elsewhere across the state have long been suffering from a fiscal crisis, leading to massive staffing cuts, dwindling extracurriculars and a dearth of resources and supplies. But, according to a report released Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, many students who are most in need of academic intervention aren't spending much time in the state's schools.
The report found the state's 500 public school districts have dramatically increased their reliance on disciplinary practices like out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, leading to what study authors are calling "an educational crisis that goes far beyond the state's largest school system in Philadelphia." Pennsylvania school districts, in the 2011 through 2012 academic year alone, issued more than 166,000 out-of-school suspensions, amounting to 10 suspensions per 100 students. In addition, 1,808 students were expelled, while 5,261 were arrested by police.
"We started working on this about three years ago," said Harold Jordan, author of the study "Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Schools." "It came from a concern about the fact that so much of the debate about school safety and discipline issues focused on Philadelphia. We thought we'd take a look at the rest of the state. We knew from our work at the ACLU there were issues and problems in other parts of the state, but we did not know what the magnitude was."
The report found the incidence of out-of-school disciplinary actions to be wide-ranging, and not necessarily tied to school districts' sizes. The York City School District, with an enrollment of just 5,196 students, in 2011 through 2012 led the state's out-of-school suspension rates with 91.4 suspensions per 100 students. That's four times higher than the suspension rate of the School District of Philadelphia, which saw 25.9 suspensions for every 100 of its 154,262 students.
The Donegal School District in Lancaster County, with 2,864 students, was number one when it came to expulsions, with 1.33 expulsions per 100 students. The Brownsville Area School District, which has an enrollment of 1,797, topped the state in the rate of student arrests, with 6.84 arrests per 100 students. Philadelphia ranked 30th in the state's arrest rate, with the district housing 9.4 percent of the state's public school students but 28.4 percent of statewide arrests.
"I think the report should open up a lot of policy makers' eyes," executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union Hiram Rivera said. "I think the numbers are not shocking to those of us that have been doing this work for a long time. I think those new to the game who don't know exactly what's happening inside our schools are going to be really shocked. This tells them it's not just a Philadelphia problem and it's not just an urban problem -- it's an overall problem we've having in our schools."
The report further found those who tend to be the most disadvantaged when it comes to school services, including black, Latino and disabled students, were also the most likely to be booted out of class. While black youths in the 2011 through 2012 school year comprised just 13.6 percent of Pennsylvania students, they received 48.25 percent of the out-of-school suspensions handed down. Latinos, though they made up 8.4 percent of students, received 14.5 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. Ten out of every 100 Latino students in the state were suspended at least once, amounting to one of the highest Latino suspension rates in the country.
Students with disabilities were almost twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions, with 11.1 percent of suspensions being handed down to disabled students, compared to an average of 5.7 percent for the overall student population. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, black students with disabilities were found to have received out-of-school suspensions at the highest rate of any group, with 22 out of every 100 students being suspended at least once.
"Our highest rate of referrals come from students with individualized education plans who have a disability and are in need of some sort of assistance that is not being met," said Ben Fils of the School Discipline Advocacy Service. The coalition of Temple University and University of Pennsylvania law students works with children and parents to address the handling of educational disciplinary matters. "Oftentimes, the discipline is a manifestation of their disability, and that's something that needs to be addressed."
Finally, the study noted Pennsylvania's public school districts are relying more heavily on in-school police officers without monitoring their impact. School Resource Officers were working in 87 school districts during the 2011 through 12 academic year, compared to 26 districts in 2003 through 2004. Study authors said the increased police presence resulted in law enforcement becoming involved in disciplinary matters that did not pose safety concerns and may otherwise have been confined to the schools.
"That's the distinction we're trying to make: between discipline and safety," Jordan said. "We're not taking an absolutist position on whether police should ever be in schools, but let's stick to legitimate law enforcement dealing with criminal matters -- drug trafficking, violence, bringing guns to school. But that's a small minority of reasons why kids are suspended, honestly."
And the implications for those students who are suspended or expelled for minor infractions are vast. Jordan noted they're more likely to get encounter the criminal justice system, to be held back a grade and to drop out of school altogether, even after they return from being punishment.
"We routinely see students that are being disciplined for a wide range of issues, and that ends up having long term impacts on their interactions with police, as well as their ability to be enrolled in colleges," Fils said. "We actually worked with a student this year that had been accepted to a university and, because of her disciplinary measure, would have had to defer her acceptance for a year and complete another year of school. ... In a situation where an individual did not have an advocate available to challenge the disciplinary action, that student would have been back in her secondary school and not in college."
The study provided several recommendations to improve the state's educational climate. Those include using out-of-school suspensions and expulsions only as a last resort, when students pose a real and immediate safety threat, and minimizing the use of law enforcement in school discipline matters.
"You've got this situation where the minor and the major are all mixed in there and you can't often tell by the form of discipline administered which was a major incident and which was a minor incident, which were disagreements or kids being disrespectful and talking back, and which were kids fighting," Jordan said. "If you're going to suspend a broad range of kids for a broad range of reasons, you have a system that doesn't make any sense."
Rivera said he hopes the report spurs policy makers them to fund the institutions that educate children, not those that eventually deal with them if that education fails. "Hopefully, they see we're dealing with a crisis — a city crisis, a state crisis and a national crisis that's affecting students, not just in Philadelphia, but overall in our country," he said. "What type of America are we creating if this how we treat our young people?"