As a student in Hickory County R-1 school district, state Rep. Ian Mackey often struggled with following the rules of a classroom.
“My way to express myself was usually really loud and really invasive,” said Mackey, D-St. Louis. “There were a lot of teachers who wanted to send me home, and in some cases did.”
For Mackey, getting sent home often meant packing up and going to another classroom — one of his parents, who were both teachers in the same school district.
“My parents being teachers in the building probably saved me from a lot of out-of-school suspensions,” he said.
Most Missouri students facing suspension — especially Black students, who are disproportionately suspended — aren’t so lucky.
In the 2018-19 school year, the most recent not impacted by the pandemic, there were 1,014 in-school suspensions lasting 10 or more days and 10,675 out-of-school suspensions, according to state data.
Although the numbers have declined over the past decade, disparities have persisted. Black students and students with disabilities are suspended at disproportionately higher rates than peers.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers filed bills this year that aim to make suspensions a last resort. A trio of similar bills filed by Mackey, Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, and Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, would require schools to report and make more accessible suspension data and to encourage consideration of alternatives.
They would also prohibit out-of-school suspensions and expulsions from pre-kindergarten through the third grade.
“It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that a 6-year-old is doing something so egregious that they can no longer learn in a classroom setting. That’s really surprising,” Arthur said, later adding: “Our focus right now is making sure that we’re setting kids up for success later in life by supporting them early on.”
In addition to banning suspensions through the third grade, the bills also stipulate that truancy or prior disciplinary actions cannot be the sole basis for a student’s suspension or expulsion.
At a hearing to determine a student’s removal, the bills would require school boards to consider alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, like restorative justice techniques or behavioral supports.
In recent years, a handful of districts in the St. Louis area, including St. Louis Public Schools, limited the use of suspensions for their youngest students.
Last year, Kansas City Public Schools also approved a new policy that students through the fifth grade will not be suspended unless in instances when they cause harm to themselves or others or violate the law. The policy is set to go into effect for the next school year, said Lateshia Woodley, an assistant superintendent of student support at Kansas City Public Schools.
Coupled with the new suspension policy is a range of other initiatives, including funds to ensure a school counselor is in every school building, and to provide training and professional development to staff.
“Without adding additional support for students and training for staff,” Woodley said, “just changing the policy will not have the desired impact.”
Mackey said that in the past, opposition to banning suspensions stemmed from concern about school safety issues, such as if a student threatened to bring a weapon to class. He’s filed a version of the bill since 2019, but it’s never received a committee hearing — one of the first steps to a bill becoming law.
He said the state’s largest districts’ already moving toward limiting suspensions left him optimistic it could be a successful statewide policy.
“If it’s working for them,” Mackey said, “it can work anywhere else. It can work in Hickory County where I graduated from — 48 kids in my class.”
Other states have implemented suspension bans of their own, with varying results.
Texas and Connecticut passed bans on out-of-school suspensions through the second grade — but still saw thousands of suspensions issued to their youngest students.
Meanwhile, six years after the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the country, banned “willful defiance” suspensions for all students, there was a 75% drop across all suspension categories, and racial disparities narrowed, according to EdSource.
But advocates worry the pandemic may upend school discipline reforms, and they’ve already seen new trends arise.
Both Arthur and Mackey said they had heard from educators that not only are teachers under immense stress dealing with the pandemic, but students are as well — and that’s manifested in challenging behaviors in the classroom.
Arthur said the bills weren’t an attempt “to handcuff teachers” or take a tool away.
“But it’s to make sure that we are now working with best practice,” Arthur said, “which we know means keeping kids in school and helping them redirect some of the challenging behavior.”
Jan Parks, co-chair of the education task force for More2, a collective of faith organizations that advocated for KCPS’ new suspension policy, said the need for limiting suspensions had only increased with students missing out on time in-school amid the pandemic.
Parks said she’s concerned suspensions would only serve to hasten their removal from the classroom when they return.
“He or she’s barely gotten back, and already, they’re suspended again,” Parks said. “And that’s not helping anyone.”
Amanda Schneider, the managing attorney for the Education Justice Program, an initiative of the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri that provides legal assistance to keep kids in school and disrupt the school to prison pipeline, said the return to in-person education had led to not only an overuse of suspensions and removals, but a rise in students’ being relegated to virtual learning long-term in lieu of receiving suspensions.
Schneider called the phenomenon “virtualization,” and said she’s concerned that the students being placed on long-term virtual learning are often those who have already faced “immense setbacks” from online classes and that they may not be receiving adequate due process.
“When a student is virtualized,” Schneider said, “it really effectively means that many of the students that we work with, are and were completely without an education.”
The bills would also require schools to collect and report detailed data related to disciplinary removals, such as demographic data, the duration of the suspension and the types of alternative measures that were used prior to removing the student.
That data would in turn be part of schools’ accountability report cards published by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, starting in the 2023-24 school year.
Schools already report many of those categories, including grade level, gender and race, at both a state and federal level. However, national data on school suspensions is often several years delayed.
An October 2020 report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the UCLA Civil Rights Project that analyzed federal data for the 2015-16 school year, found that Black secondary students in Missouri lost 198 days as a result of out-of-school suspensions — 162 more days than their white peers.
Students with disabilities lost 119 days due to out-of-school suspensions, according to the study.
Meanwhile, demographic data, such as race, on school suspensions, while collected at a state level, is not made readily available on DESE’s dashboard.
Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for DESE, said additional demographic data was not displayed because “the numbers are often so minimal that the data wouldn’t be shown to protect student privacy.”
Last year, Mackey and Bailey worked to pass a new law that requires schools to report each time a student is secluded or restrained. Mackey said the need for more data on school suspensions was similarly borne out of a desire to better understand the scope of their use across the state.
Arthur’s version of the bill also stipulates that schools enrolling students who are participating in a forthcoming scholarship program must also collect and report data on suspensions to the Missouri empowerment scholarship accounts board.
Last year, lawmakers passed a tax credit program that funds donations for scholarships that can be used toward costs like private school tuition. The program has not yet launched.
“This is reasonable, good policy for all students,” Arthur said of the bill’s requirements. “And so I think it should apply to all students, especially in education settings that are accepting taxpayer dollars.”
This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.