Student Rights and School Discipline

By: Terry Pittman, Robin Roberts, Sabra Townsend

What’s going on?

Since 2012, the School District of Philadelphia has been attempting to change it’s approach with school discipline. The school code was amended when it’s zero tolerance discipline policy was found to be detrimental to student achievement. There was an over representation of students of color and students with special education needs who were subjected to the most extreme actions of out of school suspensions and expulsions for relatively minor infractions: profanity and misbehavior such as playing with their phone. The district has instituted several programs designed to emphasis positive discipline methods. These PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) programs are present in many schools and direct the school community to work as a unit to respond to misbehavior, develop a plan, and help students meet behavior goals.

Although the overall out of school suspension had dropped significantly between school year 2013-14 roughly 17,500 to 15,000 in 2015-16. However, the racial disparity remained a considerable concern. In 2013-14, Black students represented 53% of total enrollment, but 81.5% of out of school suspensions. In 2015-16, Black students represented 51% enrollment, but 71% out of school suspension. White students represented 15% total enrollment and 8.5% out of school suspensions in 2013-14. In 2015-16, white students represented 14% of total enrollment, but experienced less than 7% out of school suspension.

In 2017, the School District of Philadelphia enacted Policy to eliminate suspensions for K-2 graders. Despite prohibiting the suspension of Kindergarten students, the District continues to suspend students in first through fifth grades at alarming rates. According to Pennsylvania’s most recent Safe Schools Report, the District meted out 615 suspensions to Kindergartners, 1081 to first graders, 1779 to second graders, 2192 to third graders, 2295 to fourth graders, and 2260 to fifth graders during the 2015-16 school year. As many of these suspensions are likely longer than one day, this means that elementary-aged students missed well over 10,000 days of school due to suspension.

We are encouraged that this district is making much needed changes to support students:

We continue to be concerned with aspects of school discipline within the district. Most specifically with implementation of PBIS programs. At this time, these programs are not active in all schools. There are differing levels of progress due to uneven training and oversight of school staff to run these programs with fidelity.. Although there is a needed acknowledgement of trauma affecting many of our students, there has not been the level of training that addresses how to positively affect students, decrease punitive discipline measures, and involves parents as a valued part of the school community. It would likely be more helpful for the district to affect school climate if there was a concerted restoration of guidance counselors and a decreased emphasis on police officers in our schools. 


What can you do?

Know Your Rights

Public School Students Handbook as published by ACLU outlines the rights of the students in Pennsylvania. Parents & students can and should review the handbook to ensure they understand their rights. A link is provided below to quickly access the document.

Parent United for Public Education (PUPE) recommends that students, parents and school officials:

  1. Review the handbook to better equip public school student to be aware of their student rights
  2. Request that all student groups are provided a copy of the handbook or link to the document
  3. Recommend that all SACs and Home and Schools review the handbook two times per year to inform parents about these guidelines
  4. Discuss with their principal and school leaderships about issues they deem to be ambiguous or requires clarity
  5. Provide an opportunity for students to discuss the booklet as an assignment (grade appropriate). These activities could include debates, written assignment or discussion.

Parents should review the PBIS program that their school uses. They should also be reviewing school climate data and discussing issues and solutions as a part of the SAC.

Learn more about school discipline, district policies – in school & out of school suspension, expulsion.

Learn about alternative programs and campaigns to decreased exclusionary practices and the work that area organizations are doing.

Additional resources include:

Dignity in Schools Campaign

Philadelphia Student Union

Youth United for Change

Policy 233: Suspensions and Expulsions and the Attachment for 233



Why Philly politicians want to end K-5 suspensions

The Academic and Behavioral Consequences of Discipline Policy Reform – Evidence from Philadelphia

School District of Philadelphia – Open Data

Black students punished more than white students in public schools, government watchdog says

Suspensions really do hurt students academically, new studies confirm, but maybe less than previously thought

Reports: Stationing police in Philly schools costly, causing trauma for students of color