Lawmakers aim to curb use of suspension as punishment

(Va.) A bi-partisan bill slashing the cap on long-term suspensions pending before Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is just one of a handful of pieces of state legislation aimed at keeping kids in school and out of the justice system.

HB 1600 would change the cap on long-term suspensions from 364 calendar days to 45 school days with some exceptions. Meanwhile two Senate bills waiting on a House vote would limit suspensions of K-3 children and give principals discretion over when to refer students to law enforcement for more violations.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a co-sponsor of all three bills, said that limiting extended absences from school–especially among younger children–will have a positive impact on students’ educational, social and developmental growth and ensure schools take the time to address the root issues of a student’s misbehavior.

“Suspensions and expulsions place students out of sight and out of mind, but they don’t disappear,” McClellan said in a statement. “These are often children who—still forming as people—need academic, social, and therapeutic supports, and positive adult guidance, more than ever.”

Research has long shown children who are suspended from school are more likely to drop out, have substance abuse issues and unmet mental health needs later in life, and become involved in the criminal justice system. The impacts on students of color and those with disabilities are even more dramatic, as both subgroups have historically experienced higher rates of suspensions and expulsions.

According to the Education Commission of the States, a non-profit think tank based in Denver, national data show that black students in K-12 schools are almost 4 times as likely to be suspended, and twice as likely to be expelled, as white students. Similarly, students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as students without disabilities.

Such disparities are evident as early as preschool.

State policymakers have attempted to address these problems in recent years through legislation restricting suspension and expulsion by grade level and type of infraction, limiting the length of exclusion, and adopting restorative justice practices that allow students to address the root issues of their behavior and take responsibility for their actions while remaining in school.

Last year, at least 18 states proposed legislation and five states enacted legislation directly related to suspension and expulsion, according to the Education Commission, slightly fewer than in 2016 when at least 22 states proposed such legislation and eight states enacted it.

In Virginia, state education data show that more than 131,500 out-of-school suspensions were issued to over 70,000 individual students during the 2015-16 school year, representing an increase in the overall suspension rate for the second year in a row, according to McClellan. Among pre-K to third graders, more than 17,300 short-term suspensions and at least 93 long-term suspensions were issued.

Approximately two-thirds of all suspensions given for minor behavioral offenses, such as possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language.

Under HB 1600, long-term suspensions would be capped at 45 school days–a significant drop from the 364 calendar days currently allowed. The bill provides that a long-term suspension can extend beyond a 45-school-day period if the offense involves weapons, drugs, or serious bodily injury, or if the school board or division superintendent finds that aggravating circumstances exist, as defined by the Department of Education and considering the student’s disciplinary history.

The second bill, SB 170, limits the circumstances under which students in pre-K through third grade can be suspended for more than three school days or expelled from attendance at school. Children could only be eligible for suspension or expulsion if their offense involves physical harm or a credible threat of physical harm to others, or if the local school board or division superintendent finds that aggravating circumstances exist.

States including Maryland, California, Tennessee, Connecticut, Louisiana and Oregon have adopted similar policies since 2015.

SB 476, meanwhile, provides that school principals are not required to report criminal misdemeanors or status offenses to law enforcement if the principal decides, based on the circumstances and if the decision is consistent with Board of Education guidelines, such action is not warranted.

The bill found unanimous support in the State Senate.

“School discipline should proportionately address and correct negative behavior without derailing a student’s learning process,” McClellan said. “Simply putting students out of school for over a semester or expelling them is counterproductive. If we do not address this serious issue now, we risk losing an entire generation of kids, most of them African American or with disabilities, who will never be prepared to be productive members of society.”