Expulsions made easier at city schools

State and school district officials clarified rules for handling problem students. Steps were also taken to improve safety.

The Philadelphia School District will be able to move more swiftly to discipline and expel problem students who have contributed to a disciplinary crisis in the schools, state and city education officials said after meeting yesterday.

Paul Vallas, the district's chief executive officer, said his summit with state Education Secretary Gerald L. Zahorchak gave the district clear direction in setting guidelines for dealing with problem students.

"The whole objective here is to end the confusion over what we can and cannot do," Vallas said.

In addition to clarifying the district's authority, Zahorchak assigned nine state-trained administrators to the district's nine schools described as "persistently dangerous" under state law to help improve safety.

The changes agreed to yesterday will be implemented first in those nine schools and gradually spread throughout the district. The state's Safe School Advocate, Jack Stollsteimer, will oversee the effort and look for other improvements.

The nine schools are Vare Middle School and eight high schools: Bartram, Frankford, Germantown, King, Lincoln, Overbrook, University City and West Philadelphia.

"We are in agreement on the appropriate implementation of steps to remove disruptive students from the classroom while remaining mindful of the due process rights of students," Zahorchak said in a news release.

The new procedures are in response to a string of high-profile assaults on teachers in recent weeks, including the Feb. 23 assault on Frank Burd, a teacher at Germantown High School. Burd suffered a life-threatening broken neck after he was tripped by one teen and punched by another.

One change agreed to yesterday was to designate one person in each school as the "immediate responder" who will be responsible to report all incidents.

The teachers union has claimed that not all incidents of assaults against teachers have been reported.

"This is a good first step for communication among principals, teachers and administrators," said Michael Lerner, business agent for the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, who was at the meeting along with representatives of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

Teachers and school officials have complained that varying interpretations of state and federal law, which include formal hearings, have encouraged delays or inaction in removing dangerous students.

Such delays have often resulted in an attacker's returning to the same class while the process plays out.

Specifically, principals will be authorized to suspend students for up to 10 days for a list of offenses, Vallas said. That action will be taken against students who threaten to disrupt the academic process or the safety of the school.

Also, the district will now transfer a student to an alternative school for a series of minor violations, to prevent nuisance students from becoming more dangerous.

The district will also classify a student as a danger to the school based on an expanded list of offenses - not just attacks or threats on teachers.

"By committing certain offenses, we can say you constitute a threat to the health and welfare of the school," Vallas said.

Special education students, who cannot be suspended for more than 15 days, will now be more readily transferred to alternative schools - the same as being expelled - for up to 45 days, Vallas said.

Training in de-escalation and conflict resolution will be expanded and be available to all school staff, Vallas said.

Jerry Jordan, vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, praised the intentions coming out of the meeting.

"Let's make sure it's implemented that way," Jordan said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 610-313-8173 or jshields@phillynews.com.