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An attempt to change how Pittsburgh Public Schools disciplines students narrowly fails

Jessica Kourkounis
Keystone Crossroads

Outgoing board member Terry Kennedy repeatedly said Tuesday night that her proposed policy was an attempt to give Pittsburgh Public Schools principals more disciplinary tools to handle an increase in student behavioral issues. But board members who voted against the change said that the district should focus on other ways to support students.

Kennedy had proposed that the board reinstate suspensions for repeated offenses the district labels as “level one," according to the student codes of conduct. Those offenses include what many who gave testimony during a Monday public hearing argued are typical adolescent behaviors — tardiness, profane language, horseplay and repeatedly talking during class, to name a few.

Kennedy’s proposal failed in a 4-4 vote; member Kevin Carter was absent. Tuesday was the last meeting for three outgoing board members — Kennedy, Cindy Falls and Veronica Edwards. Kennedy, Falls, Sylvia Wilson and Bill Gallagher voted for the change. Devon Taliaferro, Sala Udin, Pam Harbin and Edwards voted against it.

Recently, school principals met with school board members and asked for immediate solutions to preserve safety in schools, one of several meetings Kennedy said inspired her proposal.

She also spoke Tuesday of a recent school visit with an assistant principal. She said that students used vulgar language in hallways and didn’t listen to the assistant principal who attempted to usher them to class.

“Some of them hurried along, others looked at us like ‘yeah, so what,'” she said. “Kids weren’t worried about the consequences. They looked at us like we grew second heads. This is not an adult problem … what’s supposed to happen when these students continually ignore [administrators]?”

Kennedy said that because students can’t be suspended for repeated “level one” offenses, they have no incentive to “behave."

Taliaferro pushed back. She said students brought 18 months of trauma with them when they returned to schools this fall. PPS was one of a few districts in the region that spent most of the last school year in virtual learning. Taliaferro said pulling students from school again would not solve the behavior problems.

“I don’t know how after 18 months of children sitting at home dealing with whatever was going on in their homes, we can sit here and say – temporarily or not – the solution is kicking them out. They already felt that we don’t value their presence,” she said. “They’re not bad kids, they just are coming from difficult circumstances that many of us may or may not be able to relate to. They still show up to school. They’re looking for us to be their support system and we’re not offering much support when we’re willing to kick them out.”

A motion to table the item by Udin failed. He advocated for waiting to make a change until three new board members were sworn in Dec. 6. In the meantime, he proposed forming a committee of students, staff and parents to generate solutions.

“The principals have come to us and they are pretty united on asking for our help because they believe, and I agree, that the house is on fire,” he said. “It’s important that we reach consensus on this very important policy. It has many, many implications and is closely related to this whole concern about the school to prison pipeline.”

Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended in the city school district. That data is reflected nationally, and research shows that students who are suspended are more likely to later be involved in the criminal justice system – a trend known as the school to prison pipeline. As Harbin noted, the district doesn’t track in-school suspension or detention data, so those demographics are unknown.

Harbin said she didn’t think the issue was with the policy. Principals have the authority to suspend for violent offenses. She said that when principals were surveyed, nearly all said they wanted what Kennedy had proposed. According to Harbin, when asked what else they needed, principals asked for more staff and additional time to complete other interventions.

“I really believe what we need is therapeutic healing in our buildings every day. You were home for 18 months and now you’re asked to hold it together all day in a school building and follow all of the new rules and be able to perform,” she said. “Academically, we’re working on unfinished learning. But for social and emotional stuff we’re not working on the unfinished learning.”

She said the board should demand investments in social and emotional learning including using federal COVID-19 relief funding.

After the proposal failed, board president Wilson read a text message from a school principal, “it’s an injustice that we are not preparing students for real life, real consequences. And this is what is setting them up for the pipeline.”