On June 19, 2017, Pittsburgh Public Schools took important first steps toward limiting out-of-school suspension for early learners, pre-K through fifth grade. These actions might not have taken place without the organizing work of the Education Rights Network, a parent-led organization that works to achieve disability and racial equity in Pittsburgh Public Schools.
At the meeting, the school board formed a working group to develop a definition of “non-violent minor disciplinary infractions” and make recommendations to the board for supports and services needed to implement a ban on the use of out-of-school suspension for students in third grade and below. The group was given a deadline of November 2017 to report back. As a second step, it was instructed to produce recommendations on action Pittsburgh Public Schools might take to extend a suspension ban to include students through fifth grade.
Also in June, the board approved changes to the student code of conduct. These changes included adding preventative interventions for Students with Disabilities, outlining possible restorative practices, adding clear directives on how to obtain the code in various languages, developing separate codes for elementary and secondary school levels, and re-classifying disciplinary infractions.
For the past three years, the Network has spearheaded a “Solutions, Not Suspensions” campaign addressing the frequent, disproportionate use of detentions, suspensions, and expulsions within local public schools. We mobilized more than 800 parents, teachers, and community members to advocate for positive, preventive approaches to discipline that hold young people accountable for disciplinary infractions while keeping keep them in school.
We built our case for reform first by analyzing the district’s out-of-school suspensions data. African-American students and students with disabilities are disciplined more often and more severely than their peers. Our report, “Suspended Education in Pittsburgh Public Schools 2015-16: A Report to the Community,” revealed that African-American students in kindergarten through fifth grade were suspended at four times the rate of white students, and students with disabilities were suspended at disproportionately higher rates than students without disabilities. One-third of African-American males with disabilities and one-quarter of African-American females with disabilities were suspended at least once in the 2015-2016 school year.
Many Pittsburgh folks were alarmed by the conclusions of the report. As a result, more parents flocked to our campaign for district-wide policy changes. Some parents had children who were at risk of becoming the victims of unwarranted suspensions because of their disability or race. Other parents were concerned that their children were being taught to stereotype students of color and students with disabilities as “problem children.” These worries helped facilitate a strong, predominantly parent-led, movement for policy changes.
We sprang into action as the school board was preparing to vote on revising Pittsburgh Public Schools' Student Code of Conduct. The Network circulated a petition demanding a ban on pre-K through fifth grade suspensions for minor, nonviolent offenses. It garnered more than 600 signatures from the community. We called our school board members wrote letters, rallied outside of the school board offices, and attended every public forum on education issues. Activists disrupted a board committee meeting to present our petition and report. Over time, parents became more vocal and harder to ignore, garnering significant local media coverage.
The board’s June 19th vote to create a working group of parents, teachers, and community members is an important first step towards implementing a full ban. In the short run, the community was successful in pressuring the board to make significant revisions to the code of conduct to clarify the types of pre-K through fifth grade infractions that should and should not lead to suspensions. After years of community organizing and direct-action efforts, we’ve secured an important first victory towards ending school pushout in our district.
Although much work lies ahead, we know that our efforts have been critical to addressing the relationship between race, gender, and disability and its role in school pushout. We are attempting to change the conversation around utilizing preventive and positive approaches to discipline in our district. Our success in Pittsburgh is a testament to what can happen when communities organize to build power, demand change, and act.
Update: In December of 2017, the school board adopted a new policy. Effective September 1, 2018, the district prohibits the out of school suspension of students in grades prior to the third grade for non-violent minor disciplinary infractions.
Pam Harbin is lead organizer and a co-founder of the Education Rights Network. She is the mother of two boys, a ninth and a seventh grader, who attend Pittsburgh Public Schools. The Network is a campaign of One Pennsylvania and a member of the national Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC). The Network’s “Solutions, Not Suspensions” Campaign draws from DSC’s Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting a Human Rights Framework for Schools. In November 2019, she became a member of the school board.