But Udin’s proposal to extend to K-5 rejected
Pittsburgh Public Schools’ board of directors recently voted 7-2 to ban suspensions for grades K-2 for all non-violent and minor offenses, beginning with the 2018 school year.
But for board member Kevin Carter, who voted in the affirmative, it still felt like a loss.
“I think that if we were serious about eliminating the true disparity, the numbers speak for themselves. We have a lot less students in K-2 getting suspended for non-violent offenses…grades 3-5 is where we see the majority of the suspensions happen, and those kids are also so very young,” Carter told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview after the Dec. 20 board vote. “We could have ended the discussion here.”
That discussion is Carter’s support for an amendment to the policy that new board member Sala Udin introduced prior to the vote on banning suspensions for non-violent, minor offenses in grades K-2. Udin moved to increase the ban on suspensions for non-violent and minor offenses up to and including the fifth grade.
“I don’t believe there is much difference in non-violent behavior among children in the second grade or the fourth grade or the fifth grade. I believe the non-violent disruptions are probably the same and require similar responses,” Udin said.
In a district that’s just over 50 percent Black students, Black students account for a much higher percentage of suspensions district-wide. Anthony Hamlet, Ed.D, now in his second year as superintendent, acknowledged the district’s high suspension rate, and has worked to decrease the overall number of out-of-school suspensions, particularly for non-violent offenses. Dr. Hamlet told the board during the Dec. 20 meeting that there had been only seven school days missed from students in K-2 due to out-of-school suspensions this school year. In recent years, students had been suspended at much higher rates; not just in grades K-2, but in all grades. Dr. Hamlet said it’s a priority for those non-violent out-of-school suspensions—and all suspensions in all grades—to decrease.
Dr. Hamlet said the district does not suspend students in Pre-K.
In a review of Pittsburgh Public Schools by the Council of the Great City Schools, PPS saw 13 percent of its students suspended between one and five days in 2014-15, the highest rate of all major cities on which the Council had data. The Council also reported 17 percent of students in PPS were suspended over the course of the 2014-15 school year for anywhere from one and to over 20 days.
Advocacy group Education Rights Network was among the frontrunners in pursuing the elimination of non-violent suspensions for younger students. “This has been three years of parents, students, teachers, community members, community organizations that said enough is enough, we’re not going to let this happen anymore,” said Pamela Harbin of Education Rights Network. “And even when suspensions go down, the disproportionality doesn’t, so we know that there’s something else besides just good kids and bad kids — it’s race.”
Harbin is hopeful that the ban goes up to the fifth grade one day. That day could have been the start of next school year in Pittsburgh Public Schools. Four board members voted yes to Udin’s proposed amendment, four board members voted no, one board member abstained (Moira Kaleida). Board president Dr. Regina Holley, who voted last and essentially held the swing vote, was the last board member to vote no. The amendment needed five yes votes to pass.
“There are a lot of needs in K-2, and we want to make sure that they are in place first. As I said, we’re climbing a mountain, and the mountain is high,” Dr. Holley told the Courier in an exclusive interview after the Dec. 20 board meeting. “I really want to do it in chunks and do it right. We can learn from what we do in K-2, and then once we get that done for next year, we’ll be able to do grades 3, 4, 5 the following year. I think it would be unconscionable to just throw all of this on (schools) at once.”
Dr. Holley, along with board members Udin, Carter, Kaleida, Veronica Edwards, Lynda Wrenn, and Sylvia Wilson, voted in the affirmative to ban non-violent suspensions in grades K-2. Board members Terry Kennedy and Cynthia Falls voted against the ban on K-2 non-violent suspensions.
Carter, though pleased with the K-2 non-violent ban, told the Courier the larger picture was missed. “If it was a victory for Black children, we would have gone all the way,” he said, hoping his fellow board members would have approved the K-5 proposal. “This is a victory for politics, and for what looks good, and for what’s convenient, but not necessarily for the children.”