Missouri bills seek to ban school suspensions through 3rd grade

As a student in Hickory County’s R-1 School District, State Representative Ian Mackey often struggled to follow the rules of a classroom.

“My way of expressing myself was usually very loud and really intrusive,” said Mackey, D-St. Louis. “There were a lot of teachers who wanted to send me home, and in some cases did.”

For Mackey, being sent home often meant packing up and going to another class — one of his parents, who were both teachers in the same school district.

“My parents being construction teachers 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 2018-2019 school year, the most recent not affected by the pandemic, there were 1,014 in-school suspensions lasting 10 days or more and 10,675 out-of-school suspensions, according to state data.

While numbers have declined over the past decade, disparities have persisted. Black students and students with disabilities are suspended at disproportionately higher rates than their peers.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced bills this year to make suspensions a last resort. A trio of similar bills introduced by Mackey, Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka and Senator Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, would require schools to report and make suspension data more accessible and encourage review alternatives.

They would also ban suspensions and expulsions out of school from kindergarten through third grade.

“It’s really hard for me to understand the idea of ​​a 6-year-old doing something so blatant that he can’t learn in a classroom anymore. It’s really surprising,” said Arthur, later adding, “Our focus right now is to make sure we set kids up for success later in life by supporting them from the start.

Prohibit suspensions

In addition to banning suspensions through third grade, the bills also state that truancy or past disciplinary action cannot be the sole reason for a student’s suspension or expulsion.

During a hearing to determine a student’s expulsion, the bills would require school boards to consider alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, such as restorative justice techniques or behavioral supports.

In recent years, a handful of St. Louis-area districts have limited the use of suspensions for their youngest students, including St. Louis public schools.

Last year, Kansas City Public Schools also approved a new policy that students through fifth grade will not be suspended except in cases where they hurt themselves or others or violate the law. The policy is expected to go into effect for the next school year, said Lateshia Woodley, assistant superintendent of student support at Kansas City Public Schools.

Alongside the new suspension policy, there are a range of other initiatives, including funds to ensure there is a school counselor in every school building and to provide training and professional development for staff.

“Without adding additional support for students and training for staff,” Woodley said, “simply changing the policy will not have the desired impact.”

Tim Bomel

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Internal Communications

State Representative Ian Mackey, D-Richmond Heights, speaks during a special legislative session in June 2021.

Mackey said that in the past, opposition to banning suspensions stemmed from concerns about school safety issues, such as if a student threatened to bring a weapon to class. He has tabled a version of the bill since 2019, but it has never been heard by a committee – one of the first steps for a bill to become law.

He said the state’s largest districts already moving toward limiting suspensions leave him optimistic it can be a successful statewide policy.

“If it works for them,” Mackey said, “it can work anywhere else. It can work in Hickory County where I graduated – 48 kids in my class.

Other states have implemented their own suspension bans, with varying results.

Texas and Connecticut banned out-of-school suspensions through second grade, but still saw thousands of suspensions issued to their youngest students.

Meanwhile, six years after the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest district, banned “voluntary challenge” suspensions for all students, there has been a 75% decline in all suspension categories and racial disparities have narrowed, according to EdSource.

But advocates fear the pandemic could upend school discipline reforms, and they’ve already seen new trends emerge.

Both Arthur and Mackey said they have heard from educators that not only are teachers under immense stress in the face of the pandemic, but so are students – and this manifests in challenging behaviors in the classroom.

Arthur said the bills are not an attempt to “handcuff teachers” or remove a tool.

“But it’s to make sure we’re working with best practices now,” Arthur said, “which we know means keeping kids in school and helping them redirect some of the difficult behaviors.”

Jan Parks, co-chair of the education task force for More2, a collective of faith-based organizations that has advocated for KCPS’s new suspension policy, said the need to limit suspensions has only increased, students missing school on time amid the pandemic.

Parks said she fears the suspensions will only serve to hasten their withdrawal from class upon their return.

“He or she has barely returned, and already they’re suspended again,” Parks said. “And that doesn’t help anyone.”

Amanda Schneider, chief attorney for the Education Justice Program, an Eastern Missouri Legal Services initiative that provides legal assistance to keep children in school and disrupt the school-to-jail pipeline, said the return to the in-person education has not only led to an overuse of suspensions and expulsions, but an increase in the number of students being relegated to long-term virtual learning instead of receiving suspensions.

Schneider called the phenomenon “virtualization” and said she was concerned that students placed in long-term virtual learning are often those who have already faced “tremendous setbacks” in online courses and that they may not be receiving adequate due process.

“When a student is virtualized,” Schneider said, “it really means that many of the students we work with are and were completely uneducated.”

Suspension Data

The bills would also require schools to collect and report detailed data about disciplinary dismissals, such as demographics, length of suspension, and types of alternative measures that were used before the student was expelled.

That data would in turn form part of school report cards published by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, beginning in the 2023-24 school year.

Schools already report many of these categories, such as grade level, gender, and race, at both state and federal levels. However, national data on school suspensions is often delayed by several years.

An October 2020 report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies that analyzed federal data for the 2015-2016 school year, found that black high school students in Missouri lost 198 days as a result of suspensions. out of school – 162 days longer than their white peers.

According to the study, students with disabilities lost 119 days due to out-of-school suspensions.

Meanwhile, school suspension demographics like race, while collected at the state level, are not readily available on the DESE dashboard.

Mallory McGowin, DESE spokesperson, said additional demographic data is not displayed because “the numbers are often so small that the data would not be displayed to protect student privacy.”

Last year, Mackey and Bailey worked to pass a new law that requires schools to report whenever a student is isolated or held. Mackey said the need for more data on school suspensions also arose out of a desire to better understand the scope of their use statewide.

Arthur’s version of the bill also states that schools enrolling students who participate in an upcoming scholarship program must also collect and report suspension data to the Missouri Scholarship Accounts Board.

Last year, lawmakers passed a tax credit program that funds donations for scholarships that can be used to cover costs such as private school tuition. The program has not yet been launched.

“It’s a reasonable and good policy for all students,” Arthur said of the bill’s requirements. “And so I think that should apply to all students, especially in educational institutions that accept taxpayers’ money.”

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a grant-supported media network and donor coalition as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

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