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Senate advances Tennessee student discipline bill

March 11, 2021 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Senate on Thursday advanced a proposal that would allow teachers to remove students from the classroom permanently despite concerns that the bill could unfairly punish some vulnerable students.

Supporters argue the proposal is needed to assist teachers who are unable to do their job when faced with a disruptive, aggressive or violent student. The GOP-dominant Senate approved the bill on a 25-8 vote, with just two Republicans joining the chamber’s six-member Democratic caucus in opposition.

“Many times, (teachers) try to discipline a child, send them to the principal, the principal sends them right back to the classroom,” said Republican Sen. Joey Hensley, the bill sponsor.

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The House, which previously passed the legislation, will face another vote on an amendment on the bill before it can go before Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

Known as the Teacher’s Discipline Act, the bill creates a uniform approach for teachers to request removal of a student who has consistently interrupted the classroom. Teachers must first follow a six step process — which includes documenting previous actions taken to address the student behavior; offering counseling; and meeting with the student’s parent or guardian — before the school principle could step in with harsher actions, such as in-school suspension or relocating to another classroom.

Republican Sen. Page Walley voted against the legislation, saying the best way to address the issue is to review the funding for counselors, school therapists and behavioral health specialists.

“When a teacher faces a disciplinary issue like this, removing the unruly student from the classroom isn’t the problem,” Walley said. “The problem is getting that student the help they need so they can be reinstated into the classroom and achieve academically and behaviorally.”

Other student advocacy groups have also raised concerns about the bill’s potential consequences on students of color and those with disabilities.

“Data clearly show that the forms of harsh discipline endorsed in this bill have been disproportionately applied to Black students and students with disabilities for decades. To now pass a bill that encourages these forms of discipline is unacceptable,” said Wendy Tucker with the The Center for Learner Equity in a statement.

Tennessee’s main teacher advocacy group said the state and school districts must make sure the bill’s provisions are used in “a fair and equitable manner.”

“TEA supports measures that give teachers more control over their classrooms and ensure all students have a safe, productive learning environment,” said Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown. “This legislation provides for uniformity in discipline processes, recognizing that creating a classroom environment free of major disruption is good for all students.”