Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Tough Discipline Bills and Alternate Facts

If you have been following our Daily Reports, you know that there have been some really tough discipline bills in both the House and Senate this session. The House (HB1543 and HB1536) and the Senate bills (SB995 and SB997) started out as identical. However, the Senate patron, Senator Stanley, has worked with the education communities to include some flexibility so that no school division has tied hands in the most egregious cases. Delegate Dickie Bell has not been as willing to listen to school boards, superintendents, principals, or teachers when we have asked for some flexibility. The bills have been messy, the debate has been contentious, and, frankly, the Virginia Education Association has really taken it on the chin over our efforts.

Throughout this session, VEA has stood firm on our position that we must maintain safe schools for all students and staff. We have stood firm that school divisions need to have flexibility in the most serious cases. We have also stood firm that our schools, and school staffs, need the resources to support the behaviors that, often times, lead to long-term suspensions. Our testimony to these bills has always included messaging about the need for resources. An excerpt of what we have been communicating all session:

“We need social workers, psychologists, Assistant Principals, In School Suspension monitors, additional instructional aides, more counselors, and more funding for alternative education programs and family support programs. Without the proper resources in the buildings and in the community, we do not serve all of our students well. The state should have an obligation to support our schools in this important work. Ignoring the lack of resources limits the fixes that should be available to change course on suspension rates in Virginia.”

An important consideration in all of this is a real look at actual numbers. Reports from patrons and other legislators often include all suspensions, not just long-term. The most recent data from the VA DOE on long-term suspension numbers show that in 2014-15, a total of 4,156 students received a long-term suspension. There are over 1.2 million public school students in VA, so that number reflects less than two-tenths of one percent of all students. So 99.8% of students do not receive a long-term suspension. Does that mean the VEA is fine with that number? Absolutely not, but we need to keep in mind what is actually happening in our schools and how infrequently school divisions are resorting to this type of discipline action. Without question African-American students and students with disabilities are disproportionately represented in this number and we must take steps to support these students. VEA supports a laser focus on workable interventions to change that fact. There are tremendous programs that have shown they work. Virginia should fund these types of programs state-wide and make available training and support services for our professional staff to implement these programs.

Blaming long-term suspensions on poor classroom management skills, bad teaching, or “not wanting to teach those kids” as some legislators have done this session, is an unnecessary assault on the teaching profession. We should, instead, all be focused on real solutions, and school resources to make real change happen.

Yesterday on the floor of the House, Delegate Bell spoke an alternate fact. I will be 100% consistent in calling out any legislators that use alternate facts against our members. Delegate Bell spent time reprimanding legislators for listening to the Education Association on this bill. In an effort that seemed to be aimed at convincing these legislators that we had falsely represented our position, he said that the VEA “testified in committee that long-term suspensions were over used.” That is absolutely not true. We talked about disproportionate suspensions and we talked about not enough resources, but we have always used the same number- fewer than 0.2% of Virginia’s public school students received long-term suspensions in the last year we have data. Our position on this bill has been about keeping students safe, supporting local school divisions having some flexibility, and the need for resources to support student behaviors.

The VEA has communicated with legislators all session asking them to oppose any discipline bill that lacks some level of flexibility for the local school board. Yesterday Delegate Bell tried to make us seem as if we were talking out of both sides of our mouth. That is simply not the case.