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Phila. looking to decrease its reliance on use of out-of-school suspensions

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By Kristen A. Graham and Dylan Purcell. 

The Philadelphia School District relies so heavily on suspensions that it excludes students from classes at a rate more than three times higher than the rest of the state.

The district issued 46,552 out-of-school suspensions last year for a range of infractions such as fighting, disruption, and assault. But suspensions were even given for lower-level violations such as tardiness, truancy, improper dress, and bad language.

Nearly half of the suspensions in the 155,000-student district were given in the so-called Focus 46 schools, deemed by the district as its most troubled.

For years, the district has relied primarily on out-of-school suspensions.

Philadelphia suspended 28.2 students for every 100 compared with 9.1 for the rest of the state during the 2008-09 school year, according to the latest statewide figures available.

Its high suspension rate is out of sync with policies nationwide, and the district knows it.

Over the last year, the district has directed schools to add in-school suspensions, aligning itself with those that argue that students who have misbehaved might get into more trouble on the streets.

Emily Moronta was suspended twice from Edison High last year. Being out of class for several days at a time, she said, contributed to her decision to leave school.

“I think they should do something different for punishment,” said Moronta, 19, who was written up for fighting and ultimately left Edison for night school. “Suspension doesn’t help. You don’t get an education.”

At a February hearing before City Council, Associate Superintendent Tomás Hanna testified that the district has lowered out-of-school suspensions by replacing them with in-school suspensions.

“We don’t want to send our young people on the street because of something they do wrong,” Hanna said.

A student given an out-of-school suspension is banned from entering the school building for a specific number of days. Those who receive in-school suspensions must report to a special class.

The district’s push toward more in-school suspensions is threatened, however, because of a looming $629 million budget gap. In-school suspension requires programming, staff and space, which isn’t always available.

But even in-school suspensions aren’t always an easy fix. Some teachers say that in-school suspensions don’t work at their schools because students simply goof off and do no classwork.

At Martin Luther King High, which had more than 2,000 out-of-school suspensions last year, 700 stemmed from tardiness, said Kristina Diviny, former principal.

Suspensions “didn’t work. Our numbers didn’t go down,” Diviny said.

She said she’s torn on the use of suspensions. Schools need to find a way to make in-school suspension “unpleasant enough that they don’t want to be in there, so that it’s a real punishment,” said Diviny, now a principal in Christiana, Del.

“Out-of-school suspension isn’t a punishment for a kid.”

Hanna isn’t surprised.

“When you’re a district this large, it doesn’t surprise me that some teachers think in-school suspension isn’t effective,” Hanna said. “We are going into schools and taking a look at the programs to make sure they’re up to speed.”

The results are mixed.

Among the Focus 46 schools, 41 percent actually increased their in-school suspensions and decreased their out-of-school suspensions through December of this school year, data show.

Nine other schools ended up adding the in-school option, but also increased their out-of-school suspensions.

The schools with some of the highest out-of-school suspension rates, like Audenried High and Barratt Middle, reported no in-school suspensions in 2009-10. But this year, they seem to be getting the district’s message.

Through December, both schools are increasingly assigning students to in-school suspensions. At the same time, Audenried and Barratt have reduced their out-of-school suspensions.

But advocates are still concerned.

“It’s definitely good if the district is relying less on out-of-school suspensions, which do not improve behavior or reduce school violence,” said David Lapp, a lawyer with the nonprofit Education Law Center. “But suspensions are still disproportionately overused.”

Experts say out-of-school suspension is a Band-Aid fix – a way to make a disruptive student go away temporarily, but no solution to the root cause of the problems.

Jim Freeman, an attorney for the Advancement Project, a nonprofit that works on civil rights and educational issues, called suspension “a failed policy.”

“It doesn’t do what it sets out to do – make schools safer and improve educational quality,” Freeman said. “Indications are that it’s doing just the opposite.”

District students who had been suspended said as much to researchers from the student organizing group Youth United for Change.

“Don’t just sit there and suspend someone, and then they come back to school and you’re wondering why they’re fighting again because the problem has not been resolved,” one student said.

“Actually help them. Just because you suspend them doesn’t mean it’s going to be over [and] they’re going to come back in a week and everything is going to be OK.”

Other states and districts have already moved away from widely using suspensions.

In Connecticut, a state law forbids out-of-school suspensions except in rare cases, such as if the student is a threat to himself or others.

New York City schools no longer exclude from school students who misbehave. Troublemakers receive either in-school suspensions or are sent to “alternative learning centers” where they receive counseling and education.

The Milwaukee district, which once had one of the highest suspension rates in the country, reduced it by adding mentors and disciplinarians. It also placed in every school a violence prevention program called Positive Behavior Supports, which has been used in a limited way in Philadelphia.

And in Baltimore, suspensions were lowered by relying on counseling, mediation, student incentives, and mental health services. A top administrator’s signature is now required for any suspension longer than five days.

In Philadelphia, student groups are clamoring for change.

Youth United for Change said in a recent report that students were too often punished harshly for minor infractions. It also maintained that suspensions, expulsions, and transfers to disciplinary school are overused.

The report said that “in many instances, an out-of-school suspension is a punishment only in the eyes of school personnel. For students, it is often seen as a reprieve from the obligation to attend school.”

The Advancement Project is an Atlantic grantee.

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