Critics Attack Suspension of 33 Philadelphia Kindergartners
By SARA RIMER
PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 14 — A report this week that 33 kindergartners had been suspended from Philadelphia schools this year under a tough new discipline policy has brought strong reactions from parent groups and advocates for children, who say such suspensions could traumatize young students.
"It's almost like they've given up on the children," said Wendell A. Harris, chairman of safety and discipline for the school district's parents' council.
The discipline policy was imposed this fall by Paul G. Vallas, the new leader of the schools. It calls for principals to report all "serious incidents" and to apply appropriate remedies. The policy is intended to bring safety and order to schools that have been beset for years by chaos and violence.
"You don't wait until middle school to teach kids to read," Cecilia Cummings, a spokeswoman for Mr. Vallas, said on Friday. "And you don't wait till middle school to teach kids that violence isn't appropriate."
The district's reports indicate that the suspended kindergartners included a student who stabbed a classmate with a pencil, another who punched a teacher who was seven and a half months pregnant in the stomach and a boy who exposed his genitals to classmates. One girl bit her teacher's hand and kicked her; the girl's parents had been called in for a conference after the girl had previously assaulted the same teacher.
The suspensions all involved children who hurt other children or school employees, school officials said.
Last year only one kindergartner in Philadelphia was suspended in the first three months of school. District officials said the increase in suspensions resulted from an increase in reporting of incidents, not any significant change in children's behavior. Reports of serious incidents, which ranged from disruptive conduct to children harming one another or school staff members, increased by more than 200 percent, Ms. Cummings said.
She and other officials defended the suspensions, saying they were meant to help seriously troubled children by engaging their parents.
"Part of what the suspension allows us to do is to get the attention of the parent," Gwen Morris, who oversees discipline, said in an interview on Friday. "This is a sort of time out, ratcheted up a bit. It's not about punishing the kid or hammering the kid."
Ms. Morris added: "Clearly, at age 5 or 6 this is a parent-education issue. How do we bring parents in to support social school skills?"
Students who are suspended cannot return to school unless their parents come with them.
Anne Wheelock, who has studied suspensions as a senior research associate on a project of the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College, said Philadelphia had adopted "a quick-fix answer." The suspension policy, she said, "undermines efforts toward developing schools with safe, inclusive climates and teaching students themselves what it means to be a part of a learning community."
Mr. Harris, who has four school-age children, said the suspensions of young children created a hostile school environment that turns parents into adversaries of the schools.
Ms. Morris said she intended to study the 33 suspensions of kindergartners to make sure the schools had acted appropriately. She said she assumed that the suspensions had been imposed only after repeated serious infractions.
The suspensions, first reported this week in The Philadelphia School Notebook, an independent quarterly newspaper, included 26 out-of-school suspensions. Most of the suspensions lasted one day, school officials said.