Thursday, February 22, 2018

Suspension Bills- Updates on Amendments and Substitutes

Once again this session we saw legislative efforts to reduce the numbers of suspensions and expulsions in our public schools. We can all agree that this is a problem that needs to be addressed. Those of us who work in our public schools can also agree that resources (effective programs, professional development, and personnel) are needed to support the student behaviors that can lead to suspensions and expulsions.

Ten years ago this session, and in response to the Great Recession, the General Assembly placed an arbitrary cap on state funding for school support personnel that has not been reversed. These positions are vital to providing classroom support for students struggling with behavior issues. In 2016, the VA Board of Education adopted sweeping changes to the Standards of Quality to reflect the increasing demands on our schools by the ever-increasing challenges of our students. These recommendations included more guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists, again, all vital to supporting our students' needs. And yet, the General Assembly has not yet taken up the recommendations or developed a plan to implement and fund them. Our schools and our students need these resources.

The education community had asked year after year for state funding for alternative education programs in the elementary grades. Currently the state provides NO FUNDING for these types of programs. Only about 30% of our school divisions are able to provide an alternative education program for our youngest students, and they do so entirely with local funding. This is another place where we have larger school divisions that are able to provide these types of programs, and smaller divisions that can't.  We have also asked for the state to increase funding for programs that have worked in VA. There is evidence that the Virginia Tiered System of Supports (VTSS), offered through the DOE is effective at reducing behavior issues at schools where it is fully implemented, yet the Senate budget cuts increases to VTSS funding. Professional development and school implementation of the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) model is also effective. And, yet state funding for that program has not expanded. We need resources, but they aren't coming, so the General Assembly is, instead, looking at legislative "fixes" to the problem.

Just like last year, there are  bills that would prohibit suspensions and expulsions in PK-3. No additional resources for our schools or classrooms; just stop their ability to suspend or expel. No question that would reduce the numbers, but schools need support, so we have, in past sessions, opposed these bills. This session, Senator Stanley carried the Senate version of the bill. He was very willing to work with all the stakeholders to get his bill to a place where we could all get behind it. He amended his bill to add 3 days, so that allows a student in PK-3 to be suspended for up to three day. The bill no longer prohibits suspensions. The other amendment he added was to give flexibility to the local school divisions to extend beyond the three days if there are extenuating circumstances. Here is the language in the amendment:

No student in preschool through grade three shall be suspended for more than three school days or expelled from attendance at school, unless (i) the offense involves physical harm or credible threat of physical harm to others or (ii) the local school board or the division superintendent or his designee finds that aggravating circumstances exist, as defined by the Department of Education. 

The education groups all believe that this amendment provides improvements to current practice while also offering enough flexibility to the local school divisions to make the best decisions to maintain safe learning environments for all students.

In the House, Delegate Bourne has HB1600 that would reduce long-tern suspensions from 364 days to 45 days. For all the reasons mentioned above, the education groups all opposed this bill. Delegate Bourne worked with all the stakeholders to amend his bill. In fact, his amendment language is similar to the amendment in Senator Stanley's bill. So HB1600 limits long-term suspensions to 45 days, but adds this amendment:

A long-term suspension may extend beyond a 45-school-day period but shall not exceed 364 calendar days if (i) the school board or division superintendent or his designee finds that aggravating circumstances exist, as defined by the local school board in a written policy, or (ii) the long-term suspension is preceded by another long-term suspension in the same school year.

We were grateful that the patrons and all the stakeholders could come to compromise language on this bill. We still need to fight for resources to support these behaviors, as nothing in these bills do that, but this is a good step and shows what we can accomplish when we all work together.