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PPS Inches Toward Suspension Reform, As Board Approves Creation Of Review Committee

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
The board heard testimony from nearly 40 people Monday in support of a ban on suspending students in early grades.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools Board unanimously agreed Thursday that the district needs a committee to create a plan to address what one board member called "an alarmingly high" rate of suspensions.

City education advocates have been pushing the Pittsburgh Public School district to address the high number of suspensions for years. For several months they’ve asked the board to ban suspensions for non-violent offenses for students below sixth grade.

Board members voted unanimously Wednesday to create a working group to provide a plan to do that. The last-minute resolution came after nearly 40 people testified in front of the board Monday. Board member Thomas Sumpter read the resolution that called for a ban on early grade suspensions to begin in January.

That’s where board members disagreed. After much deliberation over needing more supports, which could include teacher training and hiring paraprofessionals, board members said it's premature to have a deadline.  

Boardmember Kevin Carter moved to eliminate that deadline.

“To tell parents in June that we’re going to put a ban in place in January and then come back in November and nobody likes the plan and votes it down, I think it’s a slap in the face to those people who have actually fought to put a ban in place,” he said.

Board President Regina Holley said the ultimate goal was to reduce the number of students suspended.

“We want children in school, but we want the principals and the teachers to have the supports they need to get this done,” she said. “The numbers are alarming and we can’t tolerate that.”

The Education Rights Network, an initiative from the advocacy group One Pennsylvania, released a report last week that found Kindergarten through 5th grade students missed a total of 3,160 days of school last year because of suspensions. The report noted that 65 percent of the suspensions were labeled as disruption of school.

The working group of at least 10 people, including a board member, administrator, teachers, students and parents, will begin its work July 15. The group is tasked with developing and presenting, “the definition of non-violent minor disciplinary infractions and its recommendations for supports and services needed to implement a ban on the use of out of school suspension for students enrolled in grades below the third grade.”

Board member Cindy Falls said the last-minute resolution followed a district pattern of not taking the time to coordinate a plan.

“For far too long PPS has acted first and then had to think and react and I do not want to be part of that process,” she said.

District officials said suspensions have been reduced this year, as Superintendent Anthony Hamlet has made it a priority. Assistant Superintendent Anthony Anderson told the board last week that the superintendent’s cabinet reviews suspensions weekly.

Earlier in the school year, the district’s board commissioned a report from the Council of Great City Schools, which noted the perpetual disparity in who is suspended. The Education Rights Network’s report supports that claim, saying black students at PPS are suspended four times as often as white students.

Great City Schools proposed that the district eliminate suspensions for students in Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades.

The board also approved a revised student code of conduct that says schools are discouraged from suspending students in Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade. The revised student code of conduct, which is reviewed annually, expands the levels of student infractions from three to four, putting the more serious offenses, like assault on a school employee or weapon possession, in a fourth level.

Also this year, the district separated the code of conduct into a K-5 version and a 6-12 version. Those will be mailed to parents before the start of the school year.

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