Sen. Jennifer McClellan: Suspending or expelling public school students is usually counterproductive

Richmond Times-Dispatch
Jennifer McClellan

Last year, JustChildren released a report entitled “Suspended Progress” presenting an analysis of disciplinary outcome data reported by local school divisions to the Virginia Department of Education for the 2014-2015 school year. The results were startling.

Virginia public schools issued over 125,000 suspensions to over 70,000 students.
After trending downward for at least four years, the suspension rate increased from the 2013-2014 school year.
Over 20 percent of suspensions were issued to elementary school students, including nearly 16,000 suspensions to students in pre-K through third grade.

Over 10 percent of ninth-grade students were suspended at least once.
Most suspensions were issued for nonviolent, relatively minor misbehavior. Half of all out-of-school suspensions were for cell phones, disruption, defiance, insubordination, disrespect, and attendance. In fact, 670 suspensions were issued for “attendance.” Yes, students were sent home for skipping class or not coming to school, even though the General Assembly outlawed suspension for truancy in 2009.

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Suspensions were disproportionately issued to male students, African American students, and students with disabilities.
African American students were 23 percent of the total student population. But they accounted for 53 percent of all suspended students (58 percent of short-term suspensions, 60 percent of long-term suspensions), 55 percent of expulsions, and 40 percent of students referred to law enforcement. They were 3.6 times more likely than white students to be suspended. They were 67 percent more likely to be suspended for being disruptive or disrespectful than white students.

Students with disabilities were 12 percent of the total student population, but account for 25 percent of all suspended students (27.6 percent of short-term suspensions, 22 percent of long-term suspensions), 21 percent of all expulsions, and 28 percent of students referred to law enforcement. They were 2.4 times more likely than students without disabilities to be suspended.

At least 25 school divisions suspended between 25 percent and 40 percent of their African American male students with disabilities.

Suspensions and expulsions are counterproductive, as the root cause of the behavior leading to the suspension or expulsion is rarely, if ever addressed simply by putting a student out of school. Instead, suspension and expulsion accelerate a downward spiral of academic failure.
Research shows that suspended youth are more likely to further misbehave, experience academic failure, drop out, suffer mental health issues, engage in substance abuse, or end up involved in the criminal justice system. This is especially true in school divisions that do not provide access to schoolwork or any form of instruction during suspensions. When students are put out of school, they are too often unsupervised, accelerating these negative outcomes.

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The General Assembly has been grappling with this issue for several years now. This year, I am co-sponsoring several bills to address this problem.

SB 995 (Stanley) and HB 1534 (D. Bell) changes the cap for long-term suspension from a 364 days to a 90 days. Currently, students can be suspended a full calendar year, resulting in that student failing two school years. Under these bills, a student cannot be suspended longer than a single semester.

SB 997 (Stanley) and HB 1536 (D. Bell) prohibits the long-term suspension or expulsion of students in grades pre-K through third grade except in the very rare instances when weapons, drugs, or serious criminal offenses occur. Pre-K through third grade students can be suspended for up to five days. This is the age when symptoms of many disabilities begin to appear, which often manifest through behavior.

For example, in central Virginia, an autistic kindergartener was suspended multiple times for flapping his hands when he got excited or similar behaviors associated with his 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 than for older kids.

Over the years, accountability in schools has come to mean punishment. School discipline should proportionately address and correct negative behavior without derailing a student’s learning process. Simply putting students out of school for over a semester or expelling them is counterproductive. They may be out of sight, but they are still a part of our community and have the same right under the Virginia Constitution to a free, high-quality public education as “well-behaved” kids.

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.

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