Panel: Progressive Discipline Key to Ending School-to-Prison Pipeline

Nov 14, 2014

The adoption of zero tolerance policies in schools has risen sharply since the 1999 Columbine shootings.  But are those policies making schools safer? Many education stakeholders in Pittsburgh say the widespread use of zero tolerance policies has increased the likelihood of students entering the criminal justice system based on school incidents. 

“If we can move from a zero tolerance policy, which excludes children who are having trouble, to progressive discipline, which includes those with a rehabilitative effort to get them back on their feet and back into school, we can do a better job with community safety,” U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, David Hickton, said at WESA’s community forum entitled "Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline" on Monday.  

Twenty percent of Pittsburgh Public School students were suspended last year. According to the ACLU, a student who is suspended is three times as likely to drop out by 10th grade and a drop out is three times as likely to be incarcerated later in life. 

A 2013 ACLU report also stated an African American student in Pennsylvania is five times as likely to be suspended or expelled as a white student, Latino students are three times as likely and students with disabilities are twice as likely. 

Hickton said instead of educators and administrators looking at discipline as a discretionary matter, schools have embraced incarceration rather than investment in students. 

“When I was a child if I ran down the hall screaming and yelling, that was not going to lead to an interaction with a school resource officer or a meeting with the police. That was a matter of … discretionary progressive discipline that was designed to rehabilitate, not suspend me,” he said. 

Hickton was one of five panelists who discussed potential solutions for ending the “pipeline.”

Zero tolerance policies became popular in schools after Columbine as a way to address serious offenses with harsh discipline. During the last 15 years, though, schools have widened the policies to include even minor infractions.  

Walter Lewis, manager of the Homewood Children’s Village’s Bridge to College program, spoke of a student he watched suffer the lasting consequences of a one-time offense to the point that she told him she was going to drop out of school. 

“We’re not even looking at the actual situation, we’re simply saying, ‘oh you broke this rule, here’s what we have to do,’ and nobody’s even having a conversation about it. And meanwhile this is a child, who ok let’s say they did make a bad decision, there should still be opportunities to do this sort of progressive discipline as opposed to one strike, you’re out,” Lewis said. 

From an early age students are treated like criminals in their schools, said  Paulo Nzambi, the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Manchester Bidwell Corporation. 

“We have no problem bringing in more security, we have no problem putting bars on windows, we have no problem building bigger, stronger, better metal detectors, but when it comes time to providing counseling for children, when it comes time to providing a resource period or adjusting schedules so kids have the opportunity to talk about what’s going on in their home, when it comes time to providing bussing so they can get to after-school programs, those are the difficult policy decisions we need to make as a society that reinforces what we say we believe which is that we value our young people,” Nzambi said. 

Audience member Amma Ababio, a senior at Pittsburgh Allderdice High School said she recently heard a group of students say they would rather be at Clayton, the alternative placement school than Allderdice where they feel they aren’t treated humanely. 

She expressed her support for mentorship and telling those students they matter. 

“Once you sit down with those kids that are labeled bad, that are labeled kids who shouldn’t be successful, they are successful children,” Ababio said.  

Heath Bailey, assistant principal at Canon McMillan High School echoed that sentiment saying educators don’t always see bad behavior or disrespect as a sign that student is hurting. 

Panelists agreed that after-school programs are where students find solace, feel safe and stay engaged. 

“We have to rethink the way we think of schools. We have to use the schools as an opportunity to bring some of these (after-school partners) to the table at the school and be able to reach some of these issues,” Lewis said. 

A group of students, educators, community members and activists joined the discussion with: 

  • Heath Bailey, Assistant Principal, Canon McMillan High School, former Principal of Sto-Rox High School
  • William Generett, President and CEO of Urban Innovation 21, a public private partnership that supports growth of entrepreneurship in the region's innovation economy 
  • David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania 
  • Walter Lewis, Manager of Bridge to College of the Homewood Children's Village with a mission to develop a community of learners in which every child succeeds
  • Paulo Nzambi, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Manchester Bidwell Corporation which creates empowering educational environments for adults-in-transition as well as urban and at-risk youth