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00000176-e6f7-dce8-adff-f6f7707e000090.5 WESA's Life of Learning series focuses on learning and education activities, opportunities and challenges in the Greater Pittsburgh area.This multi-year commitment to providing learning-focused news coverage in southwestern Pennsylvania is made possible by a generous grant from the Grable Foundation.

Education Stakeholders Advocate for Discipline Changes

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA

Parents, educators, students and political representatives met for two hours Saturday to discuss reducing suspensions in school and create a climate that doesn’t push students out of school.  

The Education Law Center of Pittsburgh and Great Public Schools led a workshop-style conversation at the Kingsley Center in East Liberty titled, “educate don’t incarcerate,” a nod to the notion that disciplining students by pushing them out of school creates a pipeline to future incarceration.

Nancy Potter, a lawyer with the Education Law Center, said research supports what many have believed to be true for years; high levels of suspension and zero tolerance policies not only hurt the student disciplined but hurts all students who feel they aren’t in a safe and nurturing environment.

Potter led a breakout discussion on changing the student code of conduct to better reflect levels of infraction and discipline.  

“In the criminal law world I would say like misdemeanors and felonies and what you see is things like disrespect are in the same category as possession of a weapon. We think that’s a problem. And that’s something the school district has been open to working on us with making some recommendations, and I know GPS (Great Public Schools) is also going to make some recommendations on how that could look different,” she said.   

24th District State Representative Ed Gainey said he didn’t want to talk about the issue of the school to prison pipeline, rather larger issues that lead to the pipeline, such as inadequate human services. He spoke anecdotally of a student who could be acting out for un-obvious reasons.

“He’s sitting in the classroom lacking love because his family is dealing with some other issues. If we don’t strengthen health and human services, we can’t create whole students. We can’t do it. We can not do it,” Gainey said.

Jeff Shook, a professor in the school of social work at the University of Pittsburgh spoke of a study challenging the labels that are put on students at an early age.

“This study finds that there’s an internalization of this label that’s related to subsequent behavior, but more importantly it also finds that authority figures, school figures and other authority figures, they’re more apt to apply that label once it’s initially applied," he said.

Shook challenged the idea of suspension as discipline saying it might not rehabilitate students.

He urged school administrators to think about what it means to refer youth to the juvenile court rather than other ways of handling the behavior saying the overuse of the juvenile court can lead to several negative outcomes.

Gainey said in order to create better students, the state has to change the balance of funding to education.

“We have to fund education better. If we don’t change the formula, if there are some things we don’t do right now to change the way we fund education from a state perspective, then we can’t bust up the school to prison pipeline because the funding won’t be there. Because $34,000 a year goes to an inmate and only $15,000 a year goes to a student in school,” he said.