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Committee Says PPS Needs More Support Staff To Avoid Suspensions For Youngest Students

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Christian Carter holds a sign outside of the Pittsburgh Public Schools Administrative building in this June 21, 2017 photo.

A committee tasked with finding alternatives to suspending Pittsburgh students below third grade for non-violent offenses says the district needs more counselors, social workers and de-escalation training.

The board formed the working group in August after it voted down a last-minute policy revision calling for a ban on using suspensions in the early grades. Advocacy groups and the Council of Great City Schools, a consultant hired last year, have been calling for the district to stop using the punitive measure, but board members and the union representing the district’s 3,000 teachers were wary that teachers needed more support.

Some board members voiced concern at an education committee meeting Wednesday night that the recommendations would be costly.

“I think all of these recommendations are great, but we have to think of the cost implications and understand that it’s costing a lot of money to do all of these things,” said board member Sylvia Wilson. “So we have to find the smart way of being able to provide this.”

Board president Regina Holley said that shouldn’t be a deterrent.

“We cannot keep going down this road with the number of students that are sent home in kindergarten through second grade,” she said. “And there seems to be a large number of students of a particular hue that are being sent home more often than any other.”

Kindergarten through second graders together missed nearly 800 days of school during the 2015-16 school year, according to a report from the Education Rights Network. The group originally pushed for a ban of K-5 suspensions saying those students in the same year missed a total of 3,160 days of school because of suspensions. The report noted that 65 percent of those suspensions were labeled as a “disruption of school.”

That investigation and the report from the Council of Great City Schools both note a significant disparity in which students are suspended; according to the Education Rights Network, black students at PPS are suspended four times as often as white students.

The committee of teachers, principals, students, parents, community members including university representatives and board members was also tasked with defining violent and non-violent offenses.

Vandalism, harassment, fighting, bullying and physical altercations would still warrant time away from the school building, according to the group. Academic dishonesty, misuse of electronic devices or profane language should be dealt with in the school.

The group also recommended a “cool down” room in every building where students could meet with a full-time counselor or social worker.

Board member Thomas Sumpter was part of the working group. He said the recommendations were a step in the right direction, but that there is more work to be done. He suggested the central office staff take over the work.

It’s unclear when the board will vote on a revised suspension policy. Board member Moira Kaleida did ask superintendent Anthony Hamlet to include funding for additional support staff in his next budget proposal. 

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