Sen. Jennifer McClellan: Suspensions hurt students and schools in Virginia

In 2012, I introduced a package of bills to address large numbers of public school suspensions and expulsions for minor behavioral offenses, without continuing education. Only one bill passed: HB 367 requiring the Board of Education to annually publish disciplinary offense and outcome data by race, ethnicity, gender, and disability. With the passage of that bill, we have been able to systematically track patterns in the use of suspension and expulsion in our public schools.

In 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center released an analysis of public school exclusionary discipline data for the 2014-2015 academic year. The results, which I detailed in an op-ed last year, were stark. While these results spurred General Assembly action, we were unable to reach consensus on how to address the school discipline issue.

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A 2017 review of the 2015-2016 school year data showed the problem was not getting better:

  • Virginia schools continued to issue high numbers of out-of school suspensions, posting a slight increase from even the 2014-2015 totals;
  • More than 131,500 out-of-school suspensions were issued to over 70,000 individual students, representing an increase in the overall suspension rate for the second year in a row;
  • Over 17,300 short-term suspensions and at least 93 long-term suspensions were issued just to children in pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) through third grade alone;
  • The short-term suspension rate increased after years of significant steady decline;
  • The majority of suspensions were issued for minor offenses, with approximately two-thirds of all suspensions given for behavior offenses, such as possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language;
  • The suspension rate for African-American students was 3.8 times larger than for Hispanic and white students, while students with disabilities were suspended at a rate 2.6 times larger than that of their non-disabled peers;
  • African-American male students with disabilities were almost 20 times more likely to be suspended than white female students without disabilities.

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Years of research has shown that removing students from the academic environment for behavioral issues does not yield positive results for either students or schools. Children who are suspended from school are more likely to experience academic failure, drop out of school, have substance abuse issues, have mental health needs, and become involved in the criminal justice system.

Symptoms of many disabilities begin to appear between the ages of 3 years to 8 years, often manifested through behavior. For example, in central Virginia, a kindergartener with autism was suspended multiple times for flapping his hands when he got excited or similar behaviors associated with autism. Rather than putting these kids out of school, we should be assessing and addressing the underlying reasons for the behavior and continuing to educate them. This is particularly important since extended absences from school have a greater impact on the educational, social, and developmental growth of younger children.

When the underlying causes of conduct issues are left unaddressed, students who do manage to return to school have both academic and reputational challenges to overcome. This is particularly true in school divisions that do not provide continued educational opportunities for the duration of the suspension or expulsion.

Exclusion can also have harsh effects on students’ basic care and safety: some suspended students are alone and unsupervised during the day. Many also experience hunger and poor nutrition if they rely on school lunch and breakfast for meals.

Schools with high suspension rates generally have poor school climate ratings and lower test scores and graduation rates.

In short, suspensions and expulsions place students out of sight and out of mind, but they don’t disappear. These are often children who — still forming as people — need academic, social, and therapeutic supports, and positive adult guidance, more than ever. And they, like all Virginia children, have a right under the Constitution of Virginia to a free, high-quality public education.

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This year, the General Assembly has worked in a bipartisan effort to find consensus among all relevant stakeholders to tackle this important issue. We are poised to pass two important measures that I was proud to co-sponsor:

First, HB 1660 (Del. Jeff Bourne) changes the cap for long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days. The bill permits a long-term suspension to extend beyond a 45-school-day period if (a) the offense involves weapons, drugs, or serious bodily injury or (b) the school board or division superintendent or his designee finds that aggravating circumstances exist, as defined by the Department of Education and considering the student’s disciplinary history.

Second, SB 170 (Sen. Bill Stanley)/HB296 (Del. Dickie Bell) 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.

Except for drug offenses, firearm offenses, and certain criminal acts, these young children can only be suspended for more than three days or expelled if (a) the offense involves physical harm or credible threat of physical harm to others or (b) the local school board or the division superintendent or his designee finds that aggravating circumstances exist, as defined by the Department of Education.

These bills will go a long way in addressing the myopic and counter-productive exclusionary discipline problems that too often leave our most vulnerable children behind.

 
 

Jennifer McClellan, a Richmond Democrat, represents the 9th District in the Virginia Senate. Contact her at district09@senate.virginia.gov.