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Law promotes alternatives to suspending students

Suspension from school has long been linked to academic failure. Students are away from the classroom for up to several days, missing out on material taught in class and falling behind. Meanwhile, assignments pile up, making a difficult situation even worse.

A new state law will encourage Virginia schools to seek alternatives to suspensions in dealing with students who misbehave. The law, which takes effect July 1, directs the Virginia Board of Education to “establish guidelines for alternatives to short-term and long-term suspension for consideration by local school boards. Such alternatives may include positive behavior incentives, mediation, peer-to-peer counseling, community service, and other intervention alternatives.”

The law is the result of two identical bills passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe earlier this year: House Bill 1924, sponsored by Del. Lamont Bagby of Richmond, and Senate Bill 829, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Wexton of Loudoun County. Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond was a co-sponsor of both bills.

Before winning her Senate seat in January, McClellan was a member of the House of Delegates, where she served on the Education and Courts of Justice committees. Both panels have been concerned about disrupting what many call the school-to-prison pipeline.

Previous legislation sought to limit the number of suspensions in secondary schools and outlaw them altogether at the primary level. Some educators believe these limits may have prompted schools to expel students entirely – which in turn could lead to criminal activity, arrest and incarceration.

The president of the Virginia Education Association, Jim Livingston, said, “The VEA lobbied against the prior legislation due to the fear that the inability to suspend would automatically default to expulsion, exacerbating the problem.”

Students are suspended usually because of misbehavior or other violation of school policy. But studies show that suspension often leads to academic failure, complicating the emotional and behavioral challenges that led to the suspension in the first place.

On her website, McClellan details how prevalent suspensions are: During the 2014-15 school year, Virginia public schools issued more than 125,000 suspensions to over 70,000 students. More than one-fifth of the suspensions were issued to elementary students, including nearly 16,000 suspensions to students in pre-K through third grade.

“Most suspensions were issued for nonviolent, relatively minor misbehavior,” McClellan said. “Half of all out-of-school suspensions were for cellphones, disruption, defiance, insubordination, disrespect and attendance.”

McClellan noted that African-American students are disproportionately affected. African-Americans made up 23 percent of the total student population but accounted for 53 percent of all suspended students. Additionally, students with disabilities accounted for 12 percent of the student population but a quarter of all suspended students.

Livingston said today’s students come to school with a greater number of issues than children 20 years ago.

“Suicide, drug use and untraditional home situations are all contributing factors to what can be considered ‘inappropriate behavior’ in school,” he said. “Not all staff members have received professional training to be able to recognize and explain the difference that what is acceptable at home might not be appropriate school behavior.”

A complicating factor, Livingston said, is that in 2009, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law limiting state funding for school support staff, including psychologists, social workers and counselors. Such staff members are more likely to address the root of students’ behavioral problems, he said.

“Disruption to classroom learning is preventable by addressing any behavioral disabilities a student might have, but it takes resources in order to do that,” Livingston said.

McClellan hopes the new law encouraging school divisions to consider alternative disciplinary measures is a step in the right direction. “The idea is to give schools more tools in their disciplinary toolbox,” McClellan said.

For example, suppose two students get into an argument. “Rather than allowing it to escalate into something physical and putting both of them at risk of suspension, they can participate in peer-to-peer counseling to address the issue,” McClellan said.

“If a student is just being taken out of school, that is counterproductive. But if the focus shifts to addressing the behavior they’re being put out for, that’s constructive.”