By Christopher Paslay

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.

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Hardly heavy-handed

Under the code, so-called Level I infractions, which are considered "minor," include fighting, simple assault, threats, reckless endangerment, destruction or theft of school property worth up to $150, profane or obscene language, forgery of a teacher's signature, alteration of grades, and a dozen other disorderly and borderline criminal behaviors.

The consequences prescribed by the district for such "minor" offenses begin with after-school detention. That's followed by something called an "affirmative development program," a school intervention that's supposed to provide students with character-building and conflict-resolution skills.

If character-building doesn't work, a student is given an in-school suspension. If the problem persists after that, a student is given a short-term out-of-school suspension of one to three days.

Level II or "major" infractions - which include breaking and entering school property, robbery, extortion, possession of a weapon or controlled substance, aggravated assault, and sexual offenses - are handled differently. They are punished with an immediate long-term suspension of four to ten days. The next step is an "alternative education referral," which means a student may be taken out of regular classrooms and given special accommodations. When all else fails, there is the final option: expulsion.

A student is considered expelled when he or she is removed from school for more than 10 school days. To expel a student, the district is required to follow due process, including an expulsion hearing conducted by the School Reform Commission. Students can remain in school while they are awaiting such hearings, unless it's determined that they are a threat to the school community, at which time alternative accommodations will be provided.

Even after a student is expelled by the SRC, he must be readmitted when his expulsion period is up. If a student has been permanently expelled from the district, he may apply for readmission to the district by petitioning the superintendent and requesting that his expulsion record be expunged.

After a review of the consequences for bad behavior set forth in the Code of Student Conduct, it's obvious that it's less than heavy-handed. On the contrary, it's permissive. Instead of creating no-nonsense conditions that protect the rights of students who are looking to get an education, the district's disciplinary policies create a permanent home for the incorrigible and unruly.

Not that this is entirely the fault of the district. State laws require that children be given a free public education whether they want one or not. If a district decides to remove a student from one of its schools, it's still the district's responsibility to provide an alternative educational placement. These placements can be expensive, and when they involve students with disabilities, there are even more hurdles to clear.

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Schools or shelters?

Public school officials must make a choice. Do they want schools to be nothing more than shelters for troubled children who have nowhere else to go? Or do they want them to be institutions of learning where hardworking children can get an education and become productive members of society?

If they want the former, the district should shift its focus from instruction to social services that address basic needs, such as citizenship and conflict resolution. If they want the latter, then they have to enact discipline policies that expedite the remediation and removal of students who continue to rob others of their right to learn.

City schools must maintain order to run properly, and all students, regardless of race, must be held accountable for their own behavior. Until we embrace this reality, our children will continue to suffer.