By eighth grade, Christian Carter had been suspended from school a dozen times. The first time was in 3rd grade for what he described as questioning his teacher. Most were for one or two days.
“There was one time I was suspended for coming to class late. It was my third time,” he said. “A thing like coming to class late is a thing students do all the time. A cell phone in class, going to the bathroom when a teacher has denied them to go to the bathroom every single day. And that is why students are being suspended. You’re telling kids to miss a six-hour school day and just sit at home and do nothing for petty things.”
Carter is now a senior at Pittsburgh CAPA studying dance and theater. He rallied with about 60 other people Tuesday outside of the school board administrative office in Oakland holding a sign that said “solutions not suspensions.”
It’s the rallying cry for the advocacy group One Pennsylvania’s initiative the Education Rights Network. The group advocates for alternative methods to deal with the root issue of why a student is acting out.
It delivered a report to the Pittsburgh Public Schools board last week that found that students in Kindergarten through 5th grade missed a total of 3,160 days of school last year because of suspensions. The report noted that 65 percent of those suspensions were labeled as disruption of school.
Angel Gober, an organizer with One Pennsylvania, said pushing kids out of school for minor offenses sets them up for failure.
“When you keep pushing a kid out, that devalues that process,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a place of learning. It doesn’t feel like a welcoming place and so we need to make sure we need to keep kids in school and not just handing them over to the prison industrial complex. I’m not interested in feeding any more black males or black ladies into the prison system.”
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.
About 40 people spoke in support of that elimination Tuesday during a public hearing, saying suspensions were not an effective discipline practice and that unconscious bias has led to a disparity in who is disciplined.
The district will vote Wednesday on an updated code of student conduct that includes language saying teachers would be discouraged from suspending children in Kindergarten through 2nd grade. Cheryl Kleiman, an attorney with the legal advocacy group the Education Law Center, said that’s not good enough.
“The proposed language to discourage suspensions for K-2 students provides no clear guidance to educators and offers no metric of accountability,” she said. “Given the recommendations of the Council of Great City Schools, the district’s own strategic plan, and the recent commitment to invest in Community Schools. Pittsburgh is already well positioned to end the practice of suspending young students now. We can no longer rely on granular changes to address the lasting harms experienced by these children. We urge you to adopt a policy banning exclusionary discipline in pre-K through 5 immediately.”
Several board members have voiced support for a ban on suspensions in those early grades, but first they say there needs to be alternatives or teachers will be overwhelmed with policing behavioral issues.
The district held several community input forums in the spring on the code of conduct. Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services, Dara Ware Allen, said if a ban were to be implemented ,she wants to ensure that there wouldn’t be unintended consequences.
“In terms of making sure students are supported, but also that our staff are supported with the tools they need to provide alternatives,” she said.
She said stakeholders at the input meetings were overwhelmingly in support of a moratorium on suspensions for non-violent offenses.
“But concerns are related to the pace in which it’s implemented," she said. "We need to make sure staff have support because this would be a big shift.”
Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said last week in an education committee meeting that if the board were to approve a policy banning suspensions in Kindergarten through 2nd grade, the district would need a plan which could mean a budget and foundation funding for more support staff and programming.
Advocates are pushing for a suspension moratorium for non-violent offenses to start in the fall. There is no policy for a K-2 out-of-school suspension ban listed on the board’s June meeting agenda.