Proponents say keeping students out of classes is counterproductive
Bills would change schools policy.
The General Assembly could change how school suspensions are handled if an effort passes that would assure students are punished without losing too much school time because of suspensions.
The bills — six in all — would cut the maximum length of a suspension, make it so students couldn’t receive long-term suspensions or expulsions for disruptive behavior and prohibit suspensions or expulsions for pre-K through fifth-grade students.
“These bills are as simple as they sound,” said Del. Richard P. “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, who sponsored the legislation in the House of Delegates.
“I spent a long time as a teacher in a classroom. There is almost nothing good that happens in terms of a child’s development and the instruction they receive when they are suspended or expelled from school.”
The legislation, if approved, is designed to transform how discipline is handled at schools. The idea is that rather than suspend or expel a student, schools can address and, hopefully, begin working toward solving the issues that led the student to have problems in the first place.
Sending students home and keeping them out of the structured environment of school only serves to exacerbate problems by making kids fall farther behind, proponents say. It also increases the chances a student will drop out of school or land in the juvenile justice system. The bills are:
House Bill 1534/Senate Bill 995 would reduce the maximum length of a long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days. It would also keep long-term suspensions from extending beyond the current grading period unless aggravating circumstances exist or from extending beyond the current school year.
House Bill 1535/Senate Bill 996 would prohibit schools from suspending or expelling students solely for disruptive behavior unless the behavior involves intentional physical injury or is a credible threat of physical injury to another person.
House Bill 1536/Senate Bill 997 would prohibit students in preschool through fifth grade from being suspended or expelled except for drug offenses, firearm offenses or certain criminal acts.
Advocates also are supporting budget language that would encourage the use of restorative practices as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions.
“If there are behavior issues, they need to be addressed between the schools and the families,” Bell said.
“That correction needs to be made, and the parent needs to be involved, rather than just sending these kids back home where they may be unattended, where they may find themselves with nothing but idle time on their hands. I just don’t think that’s good policy. It’s counterproductive to everything we want to do in education.”
The legislation is a response to a report released last year by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center.
The group, which says suspension rates stopped declining after four years of progress, has been urging education officials statewide and locally to change practices and implement policies that will cut down on the number of students sent out of schools.
The report, titled “Suspended Progress,” found that Virginia school districts, including several in metro Richmond, are pushing students out of school through “widespread, discriminatory overuse of suspensions and expulsions.”
The report found that in the 2014-15 school year, state schools issued 123,107 shortterm suspensions to 68,802 students, 2,922 long-term suspensions to 2,819 students and 388 expulsions.
JustChildren is expected to release updated figures later this year.
One-fifth of those suspensions were issued to pre-kindergarten and elementary school students. And more than 58 percent of all out-of-school suspensions were issued for 11 offenses, including “classroom or campus disruption,” “defiance of authority/insubordination,” “disrespect/walking away” or “disruptive demonstrations.”
The report found that Petersburg and Richmond were among 18 Virginia school districts with the highest rates of short-term suspensions (10 days or fewer) in the past five school years.
Richmond handed out shortterm suspensions to 13 percent of its students, according to the report. That was down from 16 percent the previous school year and a high of 17 percent for the 2010-11 school year.
Petersburg handed out shortterm suspensions to 20 percent of its students, down from 21 percent the previous school year.
As for expulsions, Richmond and Henrico County were among the only seven school districts with at least 10 expulsions each of the past five years. The others were the counties of Pittsylvania and Prince William and the cities of Newport News, Chesapeake and Danville.
Richmond expelled 178 students over the five years, and Henrico expelled 181.
“Our support for these bills (isn’t) about taking away options that schools have,” said Amy L. Woolard, an attorney and policy coordinator for JustChildren.
“We want to make sure that we aren’t suggesting that there aren’t consequences or there isn’t accountability for misbehavior. But I think that we want to do it the smart way.
“We want to figure out a proportional response that actually gets at the root of the problem because this is the time to do it. This is when kids are learning to be out in the world.”