End most suspensions for youngest students, state senator says

A bill to gradually eliminate most out-of-school suspensions for students in preschool through third grade will be introduced in the Ohio Senate in the coming days, according to State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering.

At a press conference Tuesday, Lehner cited research tying high rates of suspension for minorities and students with disabilities to lower academic performance for those groups.

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“Research is pretty clear that one of the factors contributing to the achievement gap is the considerable amount of time that struggling students spend out of the classroom,” said Lehner, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “Already academically behind, suspensions only push them further and further behind and leave them feeling unwanted in the classroom.”

Lehner said suspensions would still be allowed under federal law when students bring dangerous weapons to school, or she said, “where the child is a danger to their fellow classmates.”

But she said those violent situations make up only 5 to 8 percent of suspensions and expulsions today. And with about 35,000 suspensions per year for Ohio students in third grade or younger, that leaves plenty of times where a young student is suspended out of school for non-violent disruption – a practice she hopes will end at all grade levels.

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The planned bill, the Supporting Alternatives for Fair Education Act (SAFE), was supported Tuesday by fellow state senators Gayle Manning, R-North Ridgeville, and Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati. Superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools Laura Mitchell also spoke about her district’s decade-long use of in-school suspension — rather than expulsion or out-of-school suspension — to get students back on track when they need behavior intervention.

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If the bill becomes law, a baseline would be set for each school’s existing number of suspensions and expulsions of non-violent young students. The schools would then have to cut that number to 75 percent of that total after one year, to 50 percent in Year 2, 25 percent in Year 3, and eliminate those suspensions in the fourth year and beyond.

The bill comes at a time when some school districts, often in suburban communities, have “zero tolerance” policies for some behaviors that lead to automatic suspension.

David Romick, president of Dayton Public Schools’ teachers union, agreed that the goal should be to keep students in school, but urged legislators to keep safety of students and school staff in mind.

“To the extent possible, we should keep kids in school and use restorative practices to do that and address the behaviors,” Romick said. “But there have to be alternatives to remove a student from a classroom or a school situation if they pose a danger to the students and staff.”

Lehner agreed there are times when a student must be removed from a classroom, but the question becomes where that line is.

A Dayton police report memo filed just Monday described an incident at a Dayton elementary school where a fifth-grader who had already been involved in two “incidents or fights” attacked another student, hitting him repeatedly in the head.

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The police report states that the principal had recommended suspension or expulsion after the previous case, but the special education team that works with the student did not agree. Now the principal intends to make that request again.

Dayton’s Racial Justice Now group, along with the Dignity in Schools campaign, has been pushing for an end to out-of-school suspension in recent years, citing disproportionate suspensions for black students.

Lehner said each school or district would have control of how they set up their behavior interventions in lieu of suspension if the bill passes. She said the Senate may attach up to $3 million in funding to the bill to help with school training costs. But she acknowledged there could be increased staffing costs, too.

“To adequately staff an in-school suspension space does cost, but I think it’s a question of priorities. And I think our priorities have been off for some time,” Lehner said. “Obviously it’s not working, so we have to be willing to do different things. Something else may have to go to make room.”

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