Two Philadelphia students have filed a lawsuit challenging a new state law that automatically bars students who have been judged delinquent or who are on probation from attending regular schools.
Critics of the measure, called Act 88, say it unfairly punishes some students and may irreparably harm their chances of getting a good education. Supporters say the law, passed by the Pennsylvania legislature in June, removes the bad apples from the classroom, gives delinquent youths the help they need, and ensures a safe environment for all students.
The law affects only students in the 205,000-student Philadelphia school system, which has approximately 5,000 students on probation and about 1,400 in juvenile detention.
The law is unnecessary, its opponents say, because the Philadelphia district, like the state’s other school districts, already has the authority to transfer violent or disruptive students to alternative schools.
They also question why the law targets only Philadelphia students.
“Is there something about Philadelphia children that makes them less deserving of basic fairness?” Len Rieser, a co-director of the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, said in a statement.
The measure is the first in the country to ban delinquent youths from regular classes regardless of their potential for violence or disruption, according to Marsha Levick, the legal director of the Juvenile Law Center, a public-interest law firm in Philadelphia.
Ms. Levick’s organization and the Education Law Center represent the two students, who claim that the law violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They filed the lawsuit Sept. 25 in Philadelphia County’s Common Pleas Court.
Three-quarters of the students affected by Act 88 were adjudicated for nonviolent offenses, Ms. Levick said, but the law doesn’t allow them to challenge their placement in alternative schools. Moreover, she said, students who have successfully completed their time in detention centers will be punished twice under the law.
“The law is such a blunt tool. What gets lost here is that kids who come out [of detention centers] do so because their facility is satisfied with their progress,” Ms. Levick said. “To the extent the legislature wants to provide these kids with a transitional school period, well, that’s what they just had.”
One of the students who filed the suit, a 16-year-old identified as W.G., was judged delinquent after throwing a bottle at a police car. W.G., who is described as an average student who had never been suspended, complied with the terms of his probation and performed community service. But because of Act 88, he can’t go back to his regular school, the lawsuit says.
State Rep. John Perzel, a Republican who sponsored the legislation, scoffed at such complaints. He plans to tweak the legislation so it doesn’t affect students who have committed minor infractions, he said, but stands by the intent of Act 88.
“When I was a kid—you don’t throw a bottle at a police car. That’s not a rational thing to do,” he said. “What are we saying to society, that anything goes?”
Philadelphia district officials, who have implemented a new zero-tolerance policy on school violence and disruption, also support the measure. They are working with a private company, Community Education Partners, to expand the capacity of their alternative schools, and are seeking other providers to accommodate the glut of students expected to enroll in such facilities as a result of the law.
School officials contend that Act 88 and district policy do not permanently bar adjudicated or probationary students from regular classes. Once students prove that they’ve reached certain academic, behavioral, and social goals, the officials say, they can switch from alternative schools to regular schools, at the district’s discretion.
The district recently launched a new program to help delinquent youths make the transition more smoothly.
“There are choices,” said Gwen Morris, the executive director of the office of instructional and behavioral intervention. “Everyone doesn’t have to follow the same path.”
But Act 88 could actually help push students to repeat their mistakes, cautioned Peter E. Leone, the project director for the National Center for Education, Disability, and Juvenile Justice, based in College Park, Md.
“Higher rates of educational attainment are linked to lower rates of re-arrest,” he said.