In spite of the Supreme Court's ringing endorsement of students' rights in the landmark Tinker decision, constitutional violations are far too common in public schools across the country. Lockers and backpacks are searched without reasonable suspicion. Marginalized students are disproportionately directed to lower track programs, and LGBQ&T students are intimidated into silence.

Teachers and administrators have a responsibility to provide a safe environment for students that is conducive to learning. They also have a responsibility to respect each student's individual rights.

End Zero Tolerance

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has a long history of work on issues affecting students and their families. For almost two decades, we’ve published Know Your Rights: A Handbook for Public School Students in Pennsylvania, and we have provided legal services to students to ensure that they are treated fairly in accordance with the law.

Our work on school discipline issues is extensive. In 2008, we began to address problems stemming from the implementation of zero tolerance in Philadelphia schools. Eventually, we expanded our focus to address statewide issues. We examined statewide data as well as school discipline and policing practice in our 2012 and 2015 reports, Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools.

In February 2019, we co-authored a national study, Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of Mental Health Staff is Harming Students. This study was based on an analysis of nationwide data from the US Education Department’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). A key finding of this report is that schools are under-resourced, and too many rely on police and the justice system for discipline.

Our dialogues with Pennsylvania education leaders are represented in our newest report, Police and Pennsylvania’s Schools: What Education Leaders Need to Know, October 2019. The report highlights how education leaders can make informed decisions about school climate and the role of police. In the past four years, our focus has switched from work on the traditional forms of exclusionary discipline in schools – such as out-of-school suspensions (OSS), expulsions, and placement in disciplinary programs – to focusing on the impact of school policing on students.

The Disparate and Punitive Impact of Exclusionary Practices: Pennsylvania Trends

Exclusionary discipline takes many forms: suspensions, expulsions, removal to alternative programs, and involvement with the justice system. While most research studies focus on disparities in the use of out-of-school suspensions, the most widely used form of exclusionary discipline, all forms of discipline resulting in school removal must be examined if we are to understand the full impact on students.

The “school-to-prison pipeline,” as it is known, refers to both the direct and indirect pathways through which a young person becomes likely to have some form of justice system involvement. It is well known that students who are suspended or expelled are at high risk of system involvement. Exclusionary discipline can throw students’ lives off-track, educationally and job-wise, in addition to leading to contact with the justice system. Patterns of punishment of students in Pennsylvania public schools are strikingly similar to overall national patterns, both in terms of out-of-school suspensions and arrests. (The partial exception is when Pennsylvania is compared to states where there are a substantial number of Native students.)

Key Pennsylvania Trends

  • The student who is most at risk of OSS and or arrest is a Black male student with a disability. For example, these students face arrest at a rate that is six times that of all students combined.
  • Black students have the greatest likelihood of receiving out-of-school suspensions, as well as the greatest likelihood of being arrested out of any racial/ethnic group. For example, these students face arrest at four times the rate of white students.
  • In 2015-16, Pennsylvania had the third-highest student arrest rate in the country, a 24% increase over the previous two years.
  • Students with disabilities, who make up 16.9% of PA public school students, receive OSS at twice the rate of other students, and they are arrested at 2.5 times the rate of all students combined (disabled and non-disabled combined).
  • Black girls are five times more likely to be arrested in schools than white girls.
  • Pennsylvania ranks second in the nation in the arrest rates for Latinx students and Black students alike.

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ACLU Summer Institute

Program Overview

From free speech to privacy and from mass incarceration to voting rights, students will become experts on the issues currently being confronted in the United States’ courts and political arena.

The ACLU’s Summer Advocacy Institute brings together a diverse group of students entering their junior and senior years of high school from across the United States to participate in an advanced, firsthand learning experience for the next generation of social justice advocates. Through an intensive 7-day program, students learn directly from lawyers, lobbyists, community activists, journalists, and other experts working to defend the civil rights and liberties critical to a free and open society.  The Close Up Foundation — a DC-based civic-education nonprofit — serves as a partner with the ACLU to provide substantive experiential learning opportunities that help students hone their skills as issue-focused campaigners. Learn more and apply here!