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Pittsburgh Public Schools to ban out-of-school suspensions before third grade

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017, 9:36 p.m.
Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration offices in Oakland on Tuesday, June 7, 2016.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration offices in Oakland on Tuesday, June 7, 2016.

Pittsburgh Public Schools just became the first school district in Pennsylvania to prohibit principals from suspending students in second grade or younger.

Effective next September, the out-of-school suspension ban will apply only to students in preschool through second grade cited for nonviolent, “minor disciplinary infractions,” such as repeatedly showing up late, violating the school's dress code or disrupting class.

On a 7-2 vote, the board approved the ban in hopes of reducing suspension rates and the number of missed school days among the district's youngest students.

The board advanced the ban despite concerns voiced by 32 principals in a letter sent to all nine board members earlier Wednesday.

The administrators had said they wanted more time to put in place the appropriate resources, support staff and training to execute the change.

Several board members said they were voting for the suspension ban contingent on Superintendent Anthony Hamlet following through with more specific information about its implementation and responding to the support needs of principals and teachers.

“I'm really concerned about that,” School Director Regina Holley said.

“It's easy to say, ‘No suspensions,'” Holley continued. “But we still want our schools to be safe ... so the principals need to have that support in the school.”

Prior to the vote, Hamlet had urged the board to advance the measure, which is a piece of his broader strategic plan.

“We're getting results, but results take time,” Hamlet said.

As board members entered the central office in Pittsburgh's Oakland neighborhood Wednesday, a couple dozen parents and activists organized by the Education Rights Network urged them to enact the ban.

“An out-of-school suspension for any child — especially a child as young as 5, 6 and 7 years old — deprives that child of essential instruction time,” said the Rev. Darlene Figgs, Education Task Force chair of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network.

Proponents of the change pointed to research that links high numbers of missed school days to higher likelihoods of students struggling academically, dropping out of school and being referred to the juvenile justice system.

Some district officials had been debating whether to enact the ban for nearly three years.

In June, the district considered expanding the ban to apply to students up to grade 5.

Board member Sala Udin proposed on Wednesday to expand the ban to pre-K-5, but it failed to pass on a tie vote, with board member Moira Kaleida abstaining.

Pittsburgh Public Schools joins districts nationwide examining how to improve disciplinary practices.

Schools are increasing mental health services, expanding alternative education programs, updating their student conduct policies and exploring the effects of “restorative justice practices,” which focus on building relationships with students in an effort to come up with a resolution other than being removed from school.

A 2013 study conducted on behalf of the ACLU listed the Sto-Rox, Woodland Hills, Wilkinsburg, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Aliquippa and Penn Hills school districts among the top 10 in the state with the highest suspension rates.

It found that black students in Pennsylvania were five times more likely than white students to be suspended.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter at @NewsNatasha.

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