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Pittsburgh Public Schools board to consider discipline change to address principals' concerns

Julia Zenkevich
90.5 WESA

In her last move as a school board director, Terry Kennedy wants the Pittsburgh Public Schools board to reverse a decision made this summer aimed at reducing detentions and suspensions for non-violent behavior issues.

Kennedy said a recent video call with board members, administrative staff and school principals was a “cry for help.”

“We have students who are not learning because of misbehavior. Our teachers and principals do not have the tools,” she said.

But dozens of parents and community members urged the board to vote against Kennedy’s proposal during a Monday public hearing. They argued that the schools should address the root cause of the behavior, especially as kids are experiencing unprecedented trauma during the COVID-19 pandemic. Parent Holly Cox called the proposal reactionary.

“Everyone has gone back to the same underfunded, understaffed schools. The issues that were there before have been magnified by post-pandemic fallout,” she said.

To keep kids in school after two interrupted years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the district updated its student codes of conduct and administrators were advised to, “exclude students from school only where it is deemed necessary to sustain a safe school environment.” The district “strongly discouraged” suspensions for non-violent offenses overall but they are prohibited for students in kindergarten through second grade.

In June, the board voted to remove “disorderly conduct” from the codes which for years led to suspensions for 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.

At the time, Kennedy said that the change would eliminate interventions and keep some students from learning because of disruptions. She repeated that concern last week when she introduced the proposal during an agenda review meeting.

“At what point do the rights of the students who are misbehaving become more important than the rights of the students who are behaving and want to learn? I cannot worry about the demographics of who is involved and who is not,” she said during the meeting. “Obviously this has to be applied across the district in an equitable way. But again, it’s not the students who are showing up to learn, they’re showing up to cause trouble.”

The demographics Kennedy referred to show that Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended in the district.

As Essence Kimes with the Education Law Center said at Monday's meeting, “reinstating this policy will exclude them from learning and lead them down a pathway that pushes them out of school and into carceral systems without addressing the underlying issues that give rise to the student’s behavior.”

Board member Pam Harbin, who proposed eliminating “disorderly conduct," said that the behavior concerns are urgent and require action. But she said exclusionary discipline like a detention or suspension does not change behavior.

“We would never expect to do detentions or suspensions to help a child with reading challenges to read better, so I don’t know why we would ever expect to use those practices to help a child with behavior challenges to behave better,” she said during the agenda review.

She advocated for providing supports and programs rather than removing students.

Board member Devon Taliaferro agreed, saying the district missed the opportunity to transition students back to school. Earlier this month she asked the administration what work was done to address the trauma students have faced while away from school. She did not receive an answer.

“They came back to us very, very traumatized at levels probably that we weren’t prepared for. I have to say publicly I think we did a disservice to those students, bringing them back without that being the forefront of how we move forward in supporting their needs. We say we are student-centered and student-focused but I see that as a missed opportunity,” she said.

The board is expected to vote on Kennedy’s proposal tonight during it’s November legislative meeting at 6 p.m. It can be streamed at