Allentown student expulsions alarming, led state

The number of students suspended or expelled has "dramatically increased" in Pennsylvania over the past 15 years, according to the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, and when it comes to expulsions, Allentown leads the state.

"Pennsylvania school districts removing students at an alarming rate," blared the headline on an ACLU press release. A new report, it said, shows that in the 2011-12 school year, "school districts issued more than 166,000 out-of-school suspensions, a rate of 10 suspensions per 100 students."

Last week's press release did not mention Allentown and I did not see the details on expulsions until I read the ACLU's full 38-page "Beyond Zero Tolerance" report.

Even though Philadelphia has nearly nine times as many students, it reveals, the state's largest school district expelled only 106 students in the 2011-12 school year, the same number as expelled in Allentown.

While there were a total of 1,808 expulsions across the state, the really big numbers involve those 166,000 suspensions, which refer to a student being kicked out of school for 10 consecutive days or less. An expulsion is anything over 10 days.

The report blamed "zero tolerance" policies in recent years, which can result in a student getting ousted for violations once considered picayune, such as dress code violations or talking back.

Before we get to the details of all that, consider the consequences of kicking more than 167,808 students out of their classes for violations ranging from the picayune to truly harmful mayhem. The consequences to the misbehaving students are nil; the consequences to taxpayers are gruesome.

As soon as I finished reading the "Beyond Zero Tolerance" report, I took a look at a pertinent state law. "Exclusion from school may take the form of suspension or expulsion," it says. "Any student so excluded shall be provided with alternative education, which may include home study."

If you're a thug who harms others, or who otherwise makes school hell for everyone else, we shall not inconvenience you at all. We shall let you gather in special classrooms with your fellow felonious pals, or we'll even provide you with personal tutors at home to help you stay on a scholastic par with those nerdy students who work hard and behave themselves.

I have a feeling that misbehavior in schools will never significantly subside until there are real sanctions common in civilized societies, where ill-bred brats are tossed out of school, period. If they then want an education, they can pay for it.

Hand-wringers say if we do that in America, streets will be aswarm with dropouts. I think the opposite would happen. After one or two thugs are kicked out with genuine consequences, others would suddenly see school as a privilege.

As for the ACLU's concern about "zero tolerance," I agree the system has gone overboard. I've seen reports of students kicked out for possession of fingernail clippers. One girl got in trouble for having a butter knife to make a sandwich. A boy was suspended for drawing a picture of a Minuteman, a symbol of the American Revolution. (Minutemen carried guns, and even pictures of guns are subversive.)

Those kinds of ridiculous measures, the report observed, resulted from a 1995 state law requiring the expulsion of any student found with a "weapon," which followed similar requirements in a federal law a year earlier. "Zero tolerance took on a life of its own," says the ACLU report. "It infected the culture of schools."

The report said zero tolerance paved the way for the "cash for kids" scandal in Luzerne County, where two judges put thousands of children in commercial juvenile jails in return for payoffs. It noted that 2,500 of those cases involved children facing school discipline for often minor offenses. Among the report's recommendations: "Remove students … only when there is a real and immediate safety threat."

Other details in the ACLU report were just as distressing.

Among the state's 10 biggest school districts, Pittsburgh had the highest rate for suspensions at 58.1 for each 100 students. Philadelphia had 25.9, Allentown had 17.8 and Bethlehem had 7.9.

The most suspension-happy school district of all was in York, where 91.4 suspensions were dished out in 2011-12 for each 100 students. In Pottsville, it was 30.2.

For expulsions, Bethlehem was in 10th place in the state with 33, nowhere near the number for Philadelphia and Allentown.

The report also decried the "disproportionate suspension of black and Latino students," and it said "students with disabilities are almost twice as likely as non-disabled students to receive OSS [out-of-school suspensions]."

Regarding the latter item, I've reported before that federal rules say bullies would not be bullies unless they have emotional problems, and anyone with an emotional problem must be considered disabled. Therefore, any thug suspended for brutalizing another student is likely to be classified as disabled, so take those numbers in stride.

Somehow, the zero-tolerance culture needs to be tempered with a little sanity.

To coddle thugs with ousters that are not really ousters at all, at the expense of decent students and taxpayers, is madness.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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