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School districts sometimes impose harsh discipline – suspensions, expulsions, transfers to disciplinary schools – when common sense would dictate otherwise. The Education Law Center encourages school districts and schools to take an approach to student discipline problems that is preventive in focus and does not exclude students from their neighborhood schools unless such exclusion is necessary and in accordance with a fair process. The Education Law Center is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all of Pennsylvania’s children have access to a high-quality public education. In addition to its reform litigation and policy work, ELC staff provides direct assistance to families, students and child-serving professionals through its telephone Help Line, its publications, its training agenda, and in some instances, direct representation. Our work focuses on children with disabilities, children in foster care, English language learners, low-income children, children unfairly disciplined and other children considered educationally “at risk.” The following are some examples from ELC’s discipline caseload in Philadelphia and other school districts: While on school grounds, a seventh-grader momentarily held a classmate’s slingshot. The school district conceded that the student was not a threat, was not planning to use the slingshot, and had never been in trouble before. However, citing its zero tolerance policy, school officials “expelled” the youngster to a program that operated for only two hours each evening, where he sat with a stack of worksheets. ELC represented the student at an expulsion hearing. The student was returned to his regular public school, and he finished the school year with good grades and no further incidents. An honor roll student carried mace for self-protection on her walk to school and, knowing she should not have it in school, voluntarily handed it to the security officer when she arrived at school. Citing zero tolerance, the school called the police and the student was locked up for the day and suspended for five days. The school tried to transfer her to a disciplinary school but, when ELC stepped in, the student was told she could return to regular school and the effort to transfer her would be dropped. A kindergarten student at a public charter school was expelled for 10 late arrivals to school, eight of which were for 10 minutes or less. The 5-year-old student lives far from the school and won’t be eligible to take the school bus until next year, when she is in first grade. ELC staff helped the mother file an appeal in the Court of Common Pleas. The appeal was settled when the school agreed that the student could return to school. School districts’ overuse of “zero tolerance” in disciplining students sometimes leads to arbitrary and excessive punishment that does not make schools safer and ruins young lives. An attorney can be the difference between a fair hearing with reasonable and proportionate consequences and harsh punishments that can be permanently detrimental to a child’s development, education and employment prospects. ELC staff provides phone advice through our help line for all callers, but many low-income families, who can’t afford counsel, need more. To meet this need, and in collaboration with the pro bono committee of the Philadelphia Bar Association, ELC will be training volunteer attorneys on how to represent students in discipline proceedings. (Our thanks to PA IOLTA for dedicated funding to support the training.) There is no other pro bono help in school discipline cases, so energizing private lawyers to represent these families is vital. In addition to the training, ELC attorneys will provide free support and technical assistance to pro bono attorneys who agree to represent these students. ELC’s Web site, www.elc-pa.org, also provides extensive resources and publications for attorneys and families. On appeal, the courts generally defer to the decisions made by administrative hearing officers or school boards. For example, in Tyson v. School District of Philadelphia, decided June 2, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court refused even to hear an appeal in a school transfer case. Now, more than ever, we need attorneys to accompany families to these administrative hearings to make sure that the student’s side of the story is told. Helping a family explain what really happened and any extenuating circumstances can make a huge difference in the outcome, and in the life and education of a child. If you are interested in being part of this effort, please register to attend one of the following training sessions: Tuesday, Sept. 26, from noon to 2 p.m. at the offices of Duane Morris; Friday, Oct. 20, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. at Dechert; and Tuesday, Nov. 14, from noon to 2 p.m. at Drinker Biddle & Reath. Participants need only attend one of the training sessions. CLE credits are available for participation and any attorney is welcome to attend. In return for this free training, we will ask you to accept a pro bono referral from the Education Law Center. Please contact me, a staff attorney at the Education Law Center, for further information about our pro bono initiative at 215-238-6970 x313 or e-mail dgordon@elc-pa.org. DEBORAH GORDON is a staff attorney at the Education Law Center.

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