Bill would halt suspensions up to sixth grade

April 5, 2017 GMT

HARRISBURG- Year after year, African-American students and other minorities have faced much harsher discipline in public schools than their peers, based on information provided by the state Department of Education.

A further probing of the numbers, issued recently by the Civil Rights Data Collection, revealed that 1 in 5 African-American boys and more than 1 in 10 African-American girls received out-of-school suspensions at rates that are more than three times than their white peers.

If those figures aren’t disconcerting enough, two state lawmakers said the children who are receiving the most out-of-school suspensions are those in kindergarten through fifth grade.

“We must find alternatives,” said Rep. Jordan Harris (D-186), who along with Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-19), has proposed House Bill 715, which would prohibit the suspension and expulsion of students in the fifth grade and below.

“Research shows that out-of-school suspensions exacerbates behavior problems and can lead to academic setbacks,” said Harris, whose district comprises parts of South and Southwest Philadelphia.

During a news conference at the state Capitol on Monday, Harris and Wheatley discussed their legislation and made a case for the change.

The duo argues that when young children are suspended from school they’re often left unsupervised at home or their parents are forced to leave work without pay, which jeopardizes income needed for rent, utilities, food and other necessities.

Among the bill supporters at the news conference was Kristina Moon, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, a group advocating quality public education statewide.

“We hope Pennsylvania will follow the national trend and limit exclusionary discipline for our youngest learners and reduce out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for all students,” Moon said.

“Research shows that suspensions increase the likelihood of future challenges for students including additional discipline, truancy, dropout or involvement in the juvenile justice system,” she said.

There are alternative pathways and better solutions, Wheatley said.

“There could be discussions held about the root causes of the problems they are having and [school officials] could put practices in place to try and avoid infractions which most are minor any way,” he said.

Research indicates that expulsions and suspensions negatively affect the education, development, health and life of students – particularly those who are younger, Wheatley said.

“This bill seeks to keep more school-age children where they belong, which is in school,” he said.

Wheatley’s 19th District, which includes Pittsburgh, has been hard hit with suspensions.

At the news conference, it was noted that there were 2,221 out-of-school suspensions issued in the Steel City last year to students in grades kindergarten through fifth.

A 2015 report by the Penn GSE Graduate School of Education Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education revealed that of the 404 suspensions in the Philadelphia Public School District, 93.8 percent involved Black students.

“So, this means that the school to prison pipeline keeps going and we must work to slash that pipeline,” Wheatley said.

Far too often the offenses are minor that lead to suspension, but the biggest concern remains that students are missing vital class time that compounds any problem, Harris said.

“They fall behind and when they fall behind, many drop out and when they drop out, they usually find trouble and then prison,” he said.

Harris and Wheatley said they’re hopeful they’ll receive enough support for their legislation. They also pointed to a recent notice from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, each of which has requested states to revise their suspension and expulsion practices with an eye toward reduction.

“I’m not an expert, but we know many of our young are experiencing suspensions and we’re not talking about 17-, 16- and 15-year-olds, we’re talking about a 9-year-old, a 6-year-old for infractions like using a cell phone,” Harris said.

“There has to be a better plan. If we want to strengthen the educational foundation of the commonwealth’s young people, one way to do that is making sure that out-of-school suspensions at the elementary level are reserved only for serious offenses,” he said.

“It is better to keep as many students as possible in school instead of sending them home, where they may be unsupervised and may fall further behind academically.”