Disorderly conduct cut from PPS code of conduct. A move to ax suspensions through grade 5 failed.

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The administration building of Pittsburgh Public Schools in Oakland. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

For years, a Pittsburgh Public Schools student making an obscene gesture or excessive noise — what some consider typical teenage behavior — could lead to a disorderly conduct violation, and ultimately a spiral into the juvenile justice system.

The disorderly conduct code, which data showed was disproportionately used on Black students in the district, could lead to criminal charges against students and was often criticized by education justice advocates for being an overly subjective or catch-all charge.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] board on Wednesday evening axed the disorderly conduct code for 6th through 12th-grade students, approving a new code of conduct with a 6-3 vote during a mildly contentious meeting where board members disagreed on a slate of proposed changes.

Board Member Pam Harbin proposed the removal of a section of the code outlining more serious handling of repeated level 1 infractions, which was approved in a 5-3 vote. Level 1 infractions are non-violent and include issues such as teasing or horseplay, being late to class, or cutting class. Another proposal by Harbin to extend the suspension ban through 5th grade failed in a 3-4-2 vote, including two abstentions from board member William Gallagher and Kevin Carter.

Multiple board members said they were either surprised, concerned or confused at changes proposed for the code after a policy workshop in the spring. District officials said the proposed changes were a response to feedback from stakeholders including the board and principals.

Board Member Cynthia Falls, who voted against the code of conduct, said her opposition was because of a confusing process around changes made before the document was presented to the board.

The Pittsburgh Public School board approved a new code of conduct in a 6-3 vote at the June 2021 legislative hearing. (Screenshot)

“It just seems like we’re getting bombarded with information and changes, and I just can’t put it together, it’s not making any sense to me what we’re doing here,” Falls said. “My vote will be no because I don’t know what I’m voting on.”

Gallagher, who also voted against the code, initially proposed to table the vote until July.

“It has to be exactly right is what I’m saying, and I want it to be right,” said Gallagher, adding that the goal is not to suspend students. “No kid should be at home. Every kid should be included. Every kid should have the ability to participate.”

Some board members who supported the changes to the code in the end said they still had concerns because principals and school staff say they need need alternatives when interventions don’t curb unruly behavior.

“At some point, you run out of interventions,” said Board Member Terry Kennedy. “How many other kids in this classroom are not learning because the teacher is trying yet another intervention with whatever student and they can’t even teach the class? So [at] what point do other student’s rights to a free and appropriate education come into play versus the one child who keeps needing interventions?”

Here are two notable changes to the PPS code of conduct:
  • ‘Disorderly Conduct’ nixed
    • Faculty will instead be encouraged to use other codes, such as fighting, bullying, profanity or disruption of class, if they apply.
  • Repeated Level 1 infractions chopped
    • District principals who participated in a roundtable and survey expressed a desire not to change the district’s handling of repeated level 1 infractions to ensure they have the tools to maintain a safe and orderly environment, district officials said at the June agenda review meeting. A report from the Pennsylvania Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights cites research saying that a principal's attitude on school discipline is not only the most powerful predictor of whether suspension rates were high or low, but is also the strongest predictor of whether racial disparities are large or small.

Calls heard

Revisions to the code are annual, and this year the district hoped to move closer toward its goal of having a code that works as an intervention resource and tool, rather than a force of discipline.

The district says it’s reimagining the rules guiding student conduct in schools to be proactively restorative.

This year’s changes, district officials said, are intended to create a policy that puts guard rails in place to better protect students and address the needs of students and school leaders.

Rodney Necciai, assistant superintendent of student support services, who collaborates with the legal department and district stakeholders to oversee the code changes, said the district held feedback sessions to hear from students, parents, community groups, administrators and principals. He said some of the best feedback came from high school students who described how simple interactions can easily escalate from a minor issue to a run-in with law enforcement.

Calls for code of conduct changes have come for nearly a decade, pushing for changes that will keep children in school more often, especially Black children, and lessen contact with law enforcement. 

The Pennsylvania Advisory Committee’s report notes that codes of conduct can punish students “who engage in non-dominant cultural practices,” including minority students and students with certain disabilities. Codes may punish behaviors that are responses to trauma, and children of color are more likely to experience adverse childhood experiences. 

Several parents and community members wrote to the board in a Monday meeting about the code of conduct. Some pushed for the removal of disorderly conduct, citing data around Black students being removed from school and excluded from learning at higher rates.

Many of the behaviors that were classified as disorderly conduct fall under other, less vague code violations such as codes specific to disrupting class, fighting or bullying, Necciai said. Making the codes more specific will also make it easier to figure out what interventions might best suit students.

In recent years, the code of conduct has undergone revisions to avoid exclusionary practices and increase focus on restorative practices, positive interventions, mental health resources and other proactive supports.

“Exclusion from school must be a last resort, reserved for only the most serious of offenses and should generally apply only after other interventions and supports have been provided to the student,” the 2021-22 code of conduct said.

The advocacy continues

School board members recently criticized the findings of an independent evaluation of elementary disciplinary data and the impact of the district’s K-2 non-violent suspension ban, citing a lack of teacher participation in survey responses and dismay that suspensions continued after the ban was enacted. The board contracted Prismatic Services to conduct the review for $11,500 in July 2020.

The report presented to the board in early June found that students in kindergarten through 2nd grade were still being suspended for non-violent infractions despite a ban implemented in 2018, though at much lower rates. In 2019-20, 18% of the K-2 out-of-school suspensions were for non-violent incidents. Board members were also disappointed in staff response turnout – only 18% of K-2 teachers participated in the survey.

An independent review of the impact of Pittsburgh Public School's K-2 non-violent suspension ban found students continued to be suspended after the ban was enacted. (Screenshot of June 2021 report)

Some justice advocates hope the next step for the code of conduct will be to extend the suspension ban for students through fifth grade, though a motion to do that in this year’s code of conduct failed.

Board President Sylvia Wilson voted against the ban extension and said that despite many discussions about the possibility, she doesn’t feel enough interventions are currently in place to broaden the ban to include 3rd through 5th grades.

“I would not be comfortable doing the 3 to 5 [ban] at this point because we haven’t been 100% successful with the K to 2 interventions,” Wilson said.

Suspensions overall have decreased, but suspensions categorized as violent for elementary grades have risen steadily. K-5 suspensions for offenses deemed violent have doubled since 2016-17, and nearly tripled for students in grades K-2.

The Education Rights Network called on the district to ban out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for third through fifth grades for minor misconduct, among other policy recommendations in a June report titled “Suspended Education.” According to the report, suspension disparities were more visible when considering intersectionality and viewing race, gender and disabilities together. 

Throughout PPS, Black students continue to be the most impacted by exclusionary discipline and lose the most days of instruction due to out-of-school suspensions. Students with disabilities are at greater risk of exclusionary discipline than their peers without disabilities. 

Between 2013 and 2020, about 80% of incidents resulting in an arrest involved a Black student, a June district data review showed. The same report confirmed that while overall citations have decreased, the number of citations given to Black girls has increased.

The Pennsylvania Advisory Committee report about the punitive and disparate impact of exclusionary practices in public schools statewide on students of colors, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students also recommended that districts ban the use of suspensions, expulsions and other exclusionary disciplines for non-violent offenses, and generally limit the use of exclusionary discipline.

Mirroring national trends, Pennsylvania’s students of color with disabilities and students of color who are LGBTQ disproportionately receive exclusionary discipline.

“Suspensions are not the appropriate method for dealing with really minor, really typical child behavior,” said Ghadah Makoshi, a community advocate with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org.

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