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PA House/Department of Education on Flickr

Why Philly politicians want to end K-5 suspensions

“We’re missing a prime opportunity in our schools to teach young people,” said Rep. Jordan Harris, who’s created legislation to address the issue.

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PA House/Department of Education on Flickr
Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Pa. Rep. Jordan Harris has a serious issue with this figure: 93 percent of suspensions of first- to fifth-graders in the School District of Philadelphia stem from “conduct” infractions.

“That is so subjective,” he said in an interview with Billy Penn. “Black students are 2.65 times more likely to be suspended and three times more likely to be suspended multiple times.”

His bill — HB 715 — introduced in April and now awaiting consideration by the House Education Committee, would ban educators statewide from suspending students in the fifth grade and below unless the “discipline is based on conduct that is of a violent or sexual nature that endangers others.” Expulsions would be banned with the same exceptions.

The data he was referencing on race and higher suspension rates was drawn from Department of Education numbers. He cited a letter sent to School District Superintendent William Hite last month, calling on Hite to ban school suspensions for these younger students. Led by the Education Law Center, the letter was co-signed by the ACLU of PA, Councilwoman Helen Gym, Youth United for Change, the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Harris, among others. Its authors noted:

Despite prohibiting the suspension of Kindergarten students, the District continues to suspend students in first through fifth grades at alarming rates. According to Pennsylvania’s most recent Safe Schools Report, the District meted out 615 suspensions to Kindergarteners, 1081 to first graders, 1779 to second graders, 2192 to third graders, 2295 to fourth graders, and 2260 to fifth graders during the 2015-16 school year. As many of these suspensions are likely longer than one day, this means that elementary-aged students missed well over 10,000 days of school due to suspension.

“Like, really, we’re suspending 8-year-olds, we’re suspending 9-year-olds,” Harris said. “Because of this action, we’re going to deny you three days of education?”

He pointed to a growing consensus in research that school suspensions may have harmful effects on the students, and are also disproportionately given to black children. Black students comprise 50 percent of the School District of Philadelphia’s K-12 enrollment. Locally, students with disabilities are also handed more suspensions. But some critics argue that the loss of this disciplinary tactic could place teachers at a disadvantage in the classroom.

States around the country have turned their ears toward this issue. It’s been widely reported that, per Department of Education analysis released last year, black preschoolers are “3.6 times more likely to be suspended” than their white counterparts, and twice as likely to get expelled. That data sparked a conversation on the harsher penalties that black children face at so young an age, as parallels were drawn to the school-to-prison pipeline. Later in 2016, Yale research revealed that preschool teachers focus more on black students, especially black males, when looking for poor behavior, even when no such behavior is taking place.

When expounding on the results to NPR, the study’s lead researcher said: “Implicit biases are a natural process by which we take information, and we judge people on the basis of generalizations regarding that information. We all do it.”

Harris said he feels that something happened in schools over the course the decades. In the past, he explained in a near-romantic tone, schools were resources for learning conflict resolution and civic values, whether it was part of the curriculum or not.

“Now those young people aren’t having those teachable moments where they’re learning how to deal with conflicts,” he stated. His voice turned more grim. What if, he posed, an 8-year-old without those skills matures into a teen who still lacks them?

“Now, that 16-year-old-picks up a gun. And they fire. Now, it sounds drastic, but that’s what we’re talking about in many of our communities,” he argued. “We’re missing a prime opportunity in our schools to teach young people.”

Harris’ bill recommends restorative justice practices over suspensions, an ethic that promotes community building and tasks students in conflict with one another to discuss their issues with care. One example would be peer court, in which students can opt to face a panel of their classmates to be judged for their behavior, rather than visit the principal’s office. A lengthy New York Times story explored why many educators resist that model— it’s pretty demanding. It requires not only a willingness to mend fences in an intellectual fashion, but also to harness one’s emotional intelligence in a process that’s far more drawn-out than doling a simple suspension.

The lawmaker asserted that he’s not blind to reservations about nixing suspensions. He noted that he considers some of the concerns raised to be “valid points.”

“There needs to be tools, but just not this one,” said Harris. “When we have a frustration, we can’t send them home. We have to find other ways to work that out.”