Monday, February 5, 2018

Closing the School to Prison Pipeline

For the last two sessions there have been solid efforts to reduce the school to prison pipeline in Virginia. The VEA has been a strong supporter of these efforts and we are grateful for some of the positive steps we have taken.

The VEA has been steadfast in our position that our public schools need more resources to address some of these student behaviors. The support staff cap still keeps over $350 million from our school divisions each year. This lost revenue keeps schools from hiring additional guidance counselors, social workers, instructional assistants, and special education aides. All of these positions are important to supporting our students and our classroom teachers. The VEA has also asked for increased funding for programs that are working in the Commonwealth, like the Virginia Tiered System of Supports (VTSS). VTSS targets resources and training to specific schools to help them bring down their suspension rates. High quality professional development in restorative justice and positive behavior interventions would also help, but these resources aren't coming. More state funding for alternative education programs is also important, but there has been no movement on this funding. In fact, the state provides no funding for alternative education programs in the elementary grades.

The other thing we need to to change is how we treat discipline in our schools. The VEA supports reversing the current code to eliminate the requirement that school principals report some offenses to law enforcement. Sadly, bills that would do just that are killed in the Courts Committee. I do not understand how legislators can claim they want to fix the problem, but want to continue to require principals to contact law enforcement for many discipline issues that come up at school. That must change.

This session there seems to be a real collaborative effort to make some real changes on the ground in our schools. House Bill 1600 (HB1600) will change the definition of long-term suspension to no more than 45 days. Currently a long-tern suspension is up to 364 days. The patron of this bill, Delegate Jeff Bourne, did put some flexibility into the bill at the request of the education groups including the VEA. It allows, that in cases with extenuating circumstances, a suspension can go beyond the 45 day maximum instead of going directly to expulsion. That was an important fix. That bill has passed out of the House Education Committee and had its second read on the House floor today. It will pass the House tomorrow and head to the Senate.

Senator Stanley has another bill (SB170) that will prohibit suspension of more than 3 days or expulsion for students in PK-3rd grade. Again the patron put some flexibility in the bill to allow for extenuating circumstances so that we can, in the most extreme situation, keep our schools and our classrooms safe. The patron of the House version of the bill (HB296), at first, seemed to want to work with the education community to put some flexibility into his bill. He also seemed to agree we need resources and committed to submitting at least one budget amendment to address this need. He did neither, and so we were not able to get behind his bill. We are grateful to Senator Stanley for seeing both sides of this very difficult issue.

The VEA is hopeful that SB170 and HB1600 will pass as amended.

We will continue to fight for resources. Stopping the door of suspension and expulsion is vitally important, but we also need to make sure our classrooms and our schools have the people and programs they need to help support all of our students (those facing discipline and the other children in the classroom and school). No teacher wants to put a student out of his or her classroom. We want to teach them all and have the tools we need to be successful.