SRC curtails suspensions for kindergartners and dress code violators

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Superintendent William Hite (left) and other officials at a School Reform Commission meeting earlier this year. The SRC on Thursday banned most suspensions for kindergartners and ended suspensions for students who violate the dress code.

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission drew praise Thursday from education advocates by banning most suspensions for kindergartners and ending suspensions for students who violate the dress code.

"We can't educate children who are not in school, and the fact that kindergartners are being suspended for things that are not considered violent behavior, that's something that we need to address," School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said after the SRC meeting.

"We have not seen zero tolerance be very effective, particularly for younger students," said SRC Chair Marjorie Neff.

The changes are "not saying there can't be consequences for not wearing your uniform," she added. "It's saying we're not excluding students from school."

The Student Code of Conduct was amended to read, "Kindergartners shall not be suspended unless their actions result in serious bodily injury, and those suspensions shall not be more than three days without an assistant superintendent's approval."

Alex Dutton, an attorney with the nonprofit Education Law Center, said the SRC should also restrict the use of suspensions for first and second graders.

Citing numbers from the state Office of Safe Schools, Dutton told the SRC that last year 448 Philadelphia kindergartners, 1,500 first graders, and 1,900 second graders were suspended. Ninety percent of those suspensions were for nonviolent offenses, Dutton said.

"Research has affirmatively demonstrated that students who are suspended at an early age are more likely to face future educational barriers and challenges, like discipline, truancy, and school dropout - all of which predict a student's entry into the school-to-prison pipeline," he said.

Also supporting the changes enacted Thursday were the American Civil Liberties Union, the Philadelphia Student Union, and Youth United for Change.

School officials told Dutton that although they also support curtailing suspensions of first and second graders, that can't happen this year because teachers in those grades have not received the necessary training in conflict resolution and other discipline strategies.

Under the new policy, which goes into effect this school year, suspensions will be replaced by interventions, said Karyn Lynch, chief of student support services.

Students' failure to wear uniforms often is the result of poverty-related factors, such as homelessness and lacking the facilities to wash clothes, she said in an interview. Therefore, teachers, counselors, nurses, and other school personnel are being trained to work with students on addressing the issues that cause them to violate the dress code policy, Lynch said.

She noted national statistics indicate a disproportionate number of black and brown boys get suspended, which the federal government has asked school districts to address. Chicago and Baltimore have already restricted suspensions for the youngest students and have reported positive results, she said.

In other news, Hite announced that 700 new teachers had been hired for the school year that begins Sept. 7, and that 97 percent of teaching vacancies had been filled.

He also reminded parents that the registration period for kindergartners and all other students opens Monday. The district has room for 12,000 kindergartners, but just over 5,000 had registered as of this week, officials said.

The first day for kindergartners is Sept. 14

deanm@phillynews.com

215-854-4172@mensahdean