Friday, December 13, 2002
Posted on Fri, Dec. 13, 2002
Thirty-three of teh district's youngest students have been suspended. Officials said the "zero-tolerance" policy is a key. By Susan Snyder
Inquirer Staff Writer
The Philadelphia School District's tough new discipline policy is reaching down to the youngest: Administrators have suspended 33 kindergartners this year, including a boy who punched a 71/2- months-pregnant teacher in the stomach, records show.
Most of the suspensions lasted only one day, but some lasted longer, officials said, adding that suspensions can last as long as five days.
Last year, only one kindergarten suspension was recorded in the first three months of school.
Officials said the reason for the increase was that principals are trying to enforce the "zero-tolerance" disciplinary policy, which calls for reporting all incidents and for appropriate consequences. Paul G. Vallas, the school district's chief executive, warned principals when the school year began that they could be fired if they failed to report incidents.
"The difference between 1 and 33 has to do with the fact that more people are reporting," Vallas said yesterday. "I also think there are some schools who are finally cracking down. People are taking the discipline policy much more seriously."
Of the 33 suspensions recorded through Dec. 2, 26 were served out of school. In seven cases, the student was allowed to remain in school but outside the classroom.
The students were suspended for a variety of offenses.
One boy exposed his genitals to classmates. Another student stabbed a classmate with a pencil during a fight, and one girl bit her teacher's hand and kicked her after a conference with the girl's parents about a previous assault on the same teacher.
The student who punched his pregnant teacher had also caused repeated problems in his classroom at McDaniel School in South Philadelphia. He was given a three-day out-of-school suspension for the punch.
Another student was suspended for violating the district's zero-tolerance policy on weapons by bringing a toy cap gun to school.
Vallas said suspending kindergarten students was sometimes necessary.
Educators will occasionally use suspensions to get parents' attention, he said. Parents are asked to come to school for a conference when returning a child from suspension.
"Sometimes teachers and the principal will say: 'We're going to send kids home until we get a little help,' " he said.
Other districts polled yesterday said kindergarten suspensions were rare.
The 210,000-student Houston school district, which is about the same size as Philadelphia's, has had one kindergarten suspension this school year - three days, for a child who brought marijuana to school, said Heather Browne, a district spokeswoman.
"This district has zero tolerance with regards to drugs or alcohol on campus. We felt there needed to be some consequence," she said.
Several officials from area suburban districts said they rarely had to consider suspending kindergartners.
"It's very, very rare, but it has occurred," said Lou DeVlieger, assistant superintendent for personnel and public information in Upper Darby schools. He said he could not recall a specific case.
"We haven't had the situations arise" in at least three to four years, said Susan Bastnagel, spokeswoman for Cherry Hill's public schools.
Gloucester Township's public school district, the largest kindergarten-to-eighth-grade district in New Jersey with just over 8,000 students, has not suspended a kindergartner in at least 12 years, Superintendent Robert Suessmuth said.
Educators and child advocates are split on the benefits of suspension.
Some say suspensions help because they get parents' attention and protect the student's classmates.
"For the other kids in the class, it's necessary that we get a handle on what's happening here," said Harvey Rice, who heads Pennsylvania's Office of Safe Schools Advocate, based in Philadelphia.
Others say out-of-school suspensions are wrong for any student, especially a kindergartner who has had little time to learn right from wrong.
"That's a stupid, stupid policy," said Irwin Hyman, a Temple University psychology professor who specializes in school discipline. "At the kindergarten level, what these little kids are mostly reacting to is what they've learned in their homes," he said.
A child who exposes himself could have been abused, he said.
Gwen Morris, who oversees discipline in the Philadelphia district, said her office would verify that the discipline was appropriate and not an overreaction by a principal or disciplinarian.
"We need to work more closely with principals . . . to take corrective actions that may be more age-appropriate," she said.
Morris said the disciplinary code offered a range of punishments, depending on the offense. Moving a child to a different classroom is one. Meeting with the parent and student is another.
District officials have been struggling since the beginning of the year to cope with violent offenses committed by elementary school students. Schools nationwide have faced a similar struggle. Elementary schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania have reported an increase in violent acts in elementary schools in recent years.
The Philadelphia district plans to begin parent-training and character-education programs on Saturdays for young students who commit violent offenses. It also is exploring the possibility of alternative school placements for the most serious troublemakers.
Forty serious incidents involving kindergarten students have occurred in the district since the start of school, according to the state's Office of Safe Schools Advocate. Besides assaults and fights, there also was a report of a kindergarten student found with marijuana in his pocket.
Joseph Brown, the principal of Sheridan Elementary School, said his school had suspended more students this year as a result of the new policy. Earlier this month, his school suspended a kindergarten student for pulling down his pants and exposing himself to classmates.
Brown says he is unsure whether the policy is good or bad.
"It bothers me," he said, "but it does get the parents in."