By Tracie Potochnik

1415 The Pittsburgh Parent Power initiative was created in 2014 to help build the capacity of grassroots community-based organizations to support parent-led school reform efforts affecting Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS). Currently, five organizations take part in the initiative (which is funded by The Heinz Endowments and supported by AISR) and work on organizing and engagement campaigns designed to make positive change for Pittsburgh’s youth and families.

Two organizations, the Education Rights Network (EdRights) and One Pittsburgh, have partnered over the last year to take on an issue affecting school districts across the nation: persistent disparities in exclusionary discipline for students of color and students with disabilities, which disproportionately funnel these students into the pipeline to prison. Their “Solutions, Not Suspensions” campaign, spearheaded by community organizers Pam Harbin and Angel Gober and a dedicated cadre of parent leaders, has included:

Reviewing and analyzing data

An examination of Pittsburgh Public Schools data for the 2014-2015 school year revealed some troubling facts:

  • African-American students were three times more likely than white students to be suspended at least once;
  • more than one-quarter of students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for special education (excluding students identified as “gifted”) were suspended at least once;
  • and 70% of suspensions were for relatively minor, non-violent “disruption of school” or conduct offenses.
  • An in-depth analysis of students in grades K–3 also showed that 476 students – 5% of those enrolled – were suspended at least once for minor “disruption of school” offenses, and collectively missed over 1,400 days of school.

1409 Raising awareness of the issue

EdRights and One Pittsburgh (with support from AISR) compiled this data and developed materials (such as the fact sheet on suspensions shown here) that they shared in meetings with a wide range of stakeholders – students, parents, residents, organizational allies, teachers’ union representatives, and school district leaders. Additionally, they highlighted important facts from national research – for example, that excessive exclusionary discipline contributes to the risk for dropping out, and the role that implicit race, gender, and disability bias plays in creating discipline disparities.

Educating parents

The groups conduct “Know Your Rights” workshops that help parents who believe their child has been unfairly disciplined. And parents can contact the groups for help in navigating the district’s Code of Conduct and discipline procedures. For example, one parent turned to EdRights when her daughter was suspended for having a cell phone in her purse, and learned that cell phones are in fact allowed as long as they’re not visible or turned on. Thanks to EdRights’s assistance, her daughter avoided missing a full day of her education. 

Mobilizing and supporting parent leaders

EdRights and One Pittsburgh have organized multiple public rallies and supported parents to deliver public testimony at school board meetings. At the board’s most recent Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Public Hearing, 13 parents told personal stories about the impact that exclusionary discipline has had on their families and called for specific changes in policy and practice.

Achieving policy change

The groups’ actions led to a major win – the school board ratified some of their recommended changes to the district’s Code of Conduct. Most notably, this included increasing the levels of disciplinary infractions from two to three and eliminating suspensions for “level one” violations, meaning that students will be less likely to be suspended for minor infractions. And when PPS was searching for new leadership, the groups fought to hire a superintendent with experience in reducing suspensions and transforming other school districts through implementation of positive school discipline policies.

1412 The campaign has received national attention, and on October 20, EdRights and One Pittsburgh co-hosted the national meeting for the Week of Action Against School Pushout sponsored by the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Over 100 attendees including youth, parents, and local, state and national activists, advocates and policymakers convened to discuss solutions to end the school-to-prison pipeline, with interactive panels on law enforcement in schools and the relationship between school climate and discipline. PPS superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet served as a panelist, several members of the PPS school board and central office staff were in attendance, and participants and panelists came from sites including Mississippi, Ohio, Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Michigan.

1416 EdRights and One Pittsburgh are using the momentum they have built to continue pushing for solutions, not suspensions in Pittsburgh Public Schools. They continue to call on PPS to commit to actions, including an end to disproportionate suspensions; a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions in pre-K–5; and the adoption of consistent, district-wide restorative practices to address discipline issues.

Tracie Potochnik is a senior research associate at AISR.