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Proposed changes in Pittsburgh schools’ student conduct code emphasize progressive and positive discipline

July 20, 2014 – by Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post Gazette – The board of Pittsburgh Public Schools will vote Wednesday on Code of Student Conduct revisions that replace zero tolerance with more discretion, incorporate ideas from a student-proposed bill of rights and provide explicit protection of students for sexual orientation and gender identity expression.

Cheryl Kleiman, an attorney with Education Law Center, which worked with the district on the proposal, said this version eliminates remaining zero tolerance policies and allows individual discretion.

She said the proposed changes reflect a “commitment to the decreasing use of exclusionary discipline policies and increasing the focus on positive education outcomes.”

Dara Ware Allen, assistant superintendent of student support services, said, “We want to make sure schools are using all of the various interventions they can use for students before we exclude students from school.”

The proposal emphasizes positive progressive discipline aimed at improving behavior and keeping students in school.

In a letter to the district in May, law center attorneys said, “Zero tolerance discipline does not work. In fact, discipline policies that exclude students from school have disproportionately impacted students of color and students with disabilities, while providing no significant improvement to school climate or safety.”

In a section of the code about fighting, this addition is proposed: “Students experiencing disputes or conflict should contact the school counselor or social worker to learn about services available, including peer mediation and school counseling, to help resolve conflict and work through disputes.”

Ms. Allen said the district plans to do professional development to offer more such services and has applied for a federal grant to help put restorative justice practices into effect.

From the current policy, this line is proposed for elimination: “Criminal charges will be filed against any individual who commits an assault while at school, at a school-sponsored event or traveling to or from school.”

While criminal charges still may be filed, they would not be mandated.

Ms. Allen said, “We’re working to try to decriminalize certain behavior. Assault is serious, but we’re providing the discretion so we’re not automatically criminalizing our students.”

The proposal states “no student shall engage in harassment on the basis of known or perceived gender, age, race, color, sexual orientation, gender identity expression, national origin, religion, disability, socioeconomic status or political belief.”

Another portion of the proposal states that students may dress, within the constraints of the code, “in accordance with their stated gender identity and/ or expression.”

It does not address locker rooms or restrooms.

On student rights, it includes portions of a 10-point student bill of rights that members of TeenBloc of A+ Schools, an education advocacy organization, proposed last year. The proposed statement that “students have the right to a positive and inclusive learning environment that feels safe, respectful and welcoming for all students” combines points made in the bill of rights.

In some cases, the changes in the policy reflect current practice in at least some schools, Ms. Allen said.
A portion on alternative education emphasizes the due process rights available to parents before a student is placed. Ms. Kleiman said this complies with state guidance but had not been specifically stated in the local code as something that must be provided.

The proposed changes also would make it standard for communication about discipline to be in the student’s and parent’s preferred language. Ms. Allen said not all principals call for translators to communicate with parents in discipline cases.

The policy also makes clear that students younger than 21 may enroll in school even if they already have a GED.

The list of infractions contained in the code, which is divided into two levels, and possible “behavior management interventions” remains the same although further review of the list is expected the next year.
The board made other changes in the code last year, including clarifying the difference between the legal definition of “disorderly conduct” and “disruption of school.”

The Education Law Center filed a complaint last year with the U.S. Department of Education seeking an investigation into alleged discriminatory placement of students statewide in alternative education for disruptive youth programs.

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