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Maria Searcy, a parent of two students in the district, wants there to be a requirement that parents must sign off on the code of conduct. She said some school districts “do training with parents and students (about the conduct) in the first month of the school year, and we (Pittsburgh) do not. We (Pittsburgh) mail the student code of conduct to households, and parents don’t know anything about it and neither do students,” she said. “It’s mailed there but it’s not like they use it, so they don’t know what’s contained in it.”

WORKING TOGETHER—Dr. Dara Ware Allen, assistant superintendent for student support services, discusses matters with a parent during the public meeting at Pittsburgh King.

Dr. Hamlet told the New Pittsburgh Courier that he felt his previous school district, in Palm Beach County, Fla., was “six or seven years ahead of what this (Pittsburgh) current code of conduct is.” PPS is the first school system of which Dr. Hamlet has held the title of superintendent.

“We had more specific incidents and consequences (outlined in the Palm Beach County code of conduct handbook),” Dr. Hamlet said. “So, as you have more specific incidents and consequences, you can really drill down to those specific support systems that you need to have, because you have accurate reporting. If you have generalized incidents codes, you really don’t know what those problems are,” he said.

Dr. Hamlet said parents told him the current code of conduct “was hard to follow, it was inconsistent.”

The current code of conduct handbook, obtained by the New Pittsburgh Courier, breaks up the infractions into three levels. Among the level one infractions are tardiness, truancy, inappropriate personal property such as cell phones, teasing, and inappropriate language or gestures. Some recommended disciplinary actions include detention, in-school suspension, and suspension of field trips or other special privileges.

Level two infractions include, among others, fighting, repeated show of disrespect and defiance, possession or use of tobacco or electronic smoking devices, and academic dishonesty.

CONCERNED PARENT—Maria Searcy, second from right, voices her concerns about the PPS Code of Student Conduct at a public meeting at Pittsburgh King, April 5. (Photos by J.L. Martello)

Some level three infractions include chronic bullying, terroristic threats, sexual harassment, assault on any person, arson, and possession or use of a weapon. Some level three recommended disciplinary actions include, short- or long-term out-of-school suspension, expulsion, referral for criminal prosecution, and alternative education placement.

“Let’s take fighting, as an example,” said Dr. Dara Ware Allen, assistant superintendent for student support services. “At one point in the district, a school may give a 10-day suspension for fighting, and the message they’re trying to communicate is fighting is not tolerated here. Something we’ve emphasized within the code of conduct is, basically a student shouldn’t get a 10-day suspension for a fight unless there is a long line of other incidents preceding that to where it’s progressive,” she said.

“So, for a fight, students may get fewer days out of school, and there might be some other interventions you may bring in, like peer mediation, restorative conference” and other methods.

Dr. Hamlet said he’s looking at creating a more detailed tier system which clearly states the specific infraction that occurred, and the minimum to maximum range of discipline that can be recommended for that specific action. Right now, it’s still too general of an infraction and disciplinary action list, said Dr. Hamlet.

“My main concern is, the actual implementation of everything they’re suggesting,” said Mercedes Williams of the Hill District Education Council. She said the district touts an individualized student success plan, “but who’s going to make sure” this is implemented, she said. “What is the framework they’re going to be looking at while they go into the schools to implement this? Are they really and truly equitable at the core? When there’s a problematic student, are they getting linked to a mentor? I don’t see that happening,” Williams said.

Dr. Hamlet also discussed the district’s ballooned out-of-school suspension rate. He said the rate is noticeably higher than the Philadelphia school district, which has over three times the amount of students. Data from the Education Rights Network revealed over 8,200 out-of-school suspensions in the 2015-16 school year for Pittsburgh Public Schools, and that Black students were suspended four times more than their White counterparts.

Searcy, who said she’s a parent consultant for the state department of education, was adamant in the public meeting at Pittsburgh King about the district improving. “The question is, do you really want to help students in this district? What are you doing proactively? What are the positive behavior intervention supports, what are the multi-tiered systems of support in schools? There’s none in the school that my kids go to (Pittsburgh Obama),” according to Searcy.

“I hope that they will see that we are doing this public process really to hear from them,” Dr. Ware Allen said in a message to parents via the New Pittsburgh Courier. “Dr. Hamlet is very committed to that.”

“We want to make sure this code of conduct begins with the expectations of great behavior, and not just saying what you can’t do but what we expect you to do as a student,” Dr. Hamlet said.

And to the parents, Dr. Hamlet said, “I would tell them, come in, let’s have a conversation (so that) you know the expectation that we have for your child, so you can support the same type of behaviors.”

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said preliminary recommendations, including those from the three public meetings, will be shared with the school Board at its Education Committee meeting May 2 at the Board of Education Building, 341 S. Bellefield St, Oakland. It is open to the public. Final recommendations for a school Board vote will be held in June, said Mercedes Howze of the district’s public information office.

Ultimately, Dr. Hamlet said, the district wants to “apply a universal system that’s fair and equitable across the system,” and that it’s “very systematic across the board of how we dispense discipline across the system.”

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