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Pittsburgh schools work with community groups to reduce suspensions

Feb. 23, 2015 – By Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Last school year, the number of suspensions in Pittsburgh Public Schools dropped 15 percent over the prior year, but still more than 9,900 suspensions were issued, nearly three-fourths of them to black students.

Those who want to “stop the pushout” say the numbers are still too high and are calling on the community, students, teachers and the district to help bring the numbers down.

Great Public Schools — Pittsburgh, the Education Law Center and the Center for Third World Organizing are working to bring all stakeholders together to tackle the issue. A community meeting, which was postponed last week due to the weather, has been rescheduled for 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at the Kingsley Center in East Liberty.

Presenters will include Jeffrey Shook and Sara Goodkind, associate professors in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh who will speak on how schools can be the entry point to incarceration, known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Nancy Potter, an attorney with the Education Law Center, will talk about the importance of strong student rights and giving teachers the supports they need to help keep students out of the pipeline.

“This is really coming from the community as a top priority area,” said Jessie Ramey, a Point Breeze parent who writes the blog Yinzercation and is a member of Great Public Schools — Pittsburgh.

“It’s really about equity,” Ms. Ramey said. “What we’re hearing from parents is a lot of stories about kids who are getting pushed out of schools over relatively minor infractions.”

In addition to Yinzercation, Great Public Schools includes the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, Action United, One Pittsburgh and SEIU Healthcare PA.

The Education Law Center is a statewide legal advocacy group working for quality schools for poor children, children of color, children with disabilities and other vulnerable children.

The Center for Third-World Organizing is a national organization focused on racial justice that began organizing young people in Pittsburgh last summer.

In a study of 17 middle and high schools in Kentucky published in the “American Sociological Review” in December, researchers found that high levels of suspensions can have negative effects on students who aren’t suspended, suggesting the remaining students feel the effects of a punitive environment.

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania looked specifically at disciplinary practices that remove students from school across Pennsylvania. Called “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania’s Public Schools,” the report pointed to high rates of suspensions and disparities in how black and Latino students and students with disabilities were treated.

Last year, the board of Pittsburgh Public Schools, with input from the Education Law Center, approved changes to the Code of Student Conduct that were aimed at replacing zero tolerance with more discretion.

Ms. Potter said more work remains to be done. In particular, she noted that the city school code has two levels of infractions and suggested there should be more levels. Currently, both “disrespect/​defiance” and ”possession or use of a weapon“ are Level 2 infractions.

Ms. Potter said teachers need more alternatives to support students rather than excluding them, including proactive measures to prevent problems. She wants teachers at the table to say what supports they need.

“The answer to prevent exclusionary discipline isn’t to tell teachers they’re not allowed to discipline kids anymore,” she said.

Avery Bizzell, organizer for the Center for Third World Organizing, noted that black students are disproportionately suspended.

In 2012-13, 20 percent of all students were suspended at some point, but the rate for black males was 28 percent.

One approach Pittsburgh is working toward is restorative justice, which focuses on reconciliation and the root causes of conflict.

Pittsburgh won a $3 million federal grant that will provide training in restorative practices and research by the Rand Corp. into how well they work that could be used by districts across the country. The restorative practices will be implemented in about 25 schools in 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Mr. Bizzell said the restorative practices must be sustainable. “How do we get to the table to make sure it keeps on for more than three years?” he asked.

Read the story on the Post-Gazette website.