Picture credit - WGXA

While education reformers continue to demand higher standards, testing, and teacher accountability, softer discipline approaches are on the rise in public schools.

The Georgia Senate successfully amended and passed a House Bill that looks to reduce school expulsion and suspensions. The original bill last year was authored by Democratic State Representative Howard Mosby of Atlanta but was brought forward by Republican Representative Randy Nix from LaGrange, and member of the House Education Committee, for the current 2018 legislative session.

The bill, House Bill 740,  is specifically aimed at not suspending students in grades preschool through third grade for five consecutive days without going through a series of supports by the school.

According to the primary author of the bill, Randy Nix, said the following about HB 740 in an email to AllOnGeorgia.

Picture credit – Georgia House of Representatives. Rep. Randy Nix (R-LaGrange)

HB 740 simply says that before a child in kindergarten through 3rd grade can be suspended for more than 5 days, they must be assessed to make sure they do not have problems seeing, hearing, and/or speaking.  Note that in Georgia, 15,000 such students are suspended each year and about 2,600 of them are suspended for 5 or more days.

Early school suspension information in Georgia on school discipline for grades pre-k through 3rd grade is as follows:

Prevalence and Impact

  • About 15,000 students in kindergarten through third grade are assigned OSS each year in Georgia. Of those students, 2,600 students in kindergarten through third grade are assigned to out-of-school suspensions for five or more days each year.
  • Studies report that pre-school children are expelled from childcare at a rate of 3 times than that of grades K-12.
  • Turnaround eligible schools (poorly performing) schools are elementary schools and K-3 students last year were assigned to out-of-school suspension at 3 times the rate statewide.
  • It is estimated that 10 percent of kindergarten students in Turnaround eligible schools lack the language skills necessary to appropriately communicate basic needs and thoughts, that is near twice the rate of kindergarten students statewide
  • There is evidence that these are leading reasons, on average, why only 11 percent of 3rd-grade students in Turnaround eligible schools were at the proficient level or above on the 2017 Georgia Milestones English Language Arts Assessment; 25 points lower than the statewide average.

The support system to be implemented statewide is called the Multi-tier System of Supports (MTSS). This model was created out of a national conversation to reduce discipline referrals of minority students, at-risk students, and students with disabilities. The support system looks to also reduce the school-to-prison pipeline by reducing a disproportionate number of students of color citing the statistic that a higher percentage of African-American males are placed in jails than white students, according to a 2014 report cited by Obama’s U.S. Department of Education. 

The state of California has also implemented a similar model for Kindergarten through Third Grade students. California’s statewide accountability system rates schools on their ability to reduce suspension and expulsion rates and to narrow the differences in suspension and expulsion rates from different racial backgrounds.  Since implementing the new policies, California has seen a significant decline in suspensions and referrals of African-Americans – suspensions were down 49 percent, and expulsions were down 40 percent for this group.

The K-3 grade provision in California sunsets July 1 for not suspending students for “willful defiance” type infractions, such as throwing a paper wad, spitballs, an expletive, or other disruptive behavior. Youth advocates are looking to extend the policy this year in the California legislature from Kindergarten through high school.

California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has vetoed recent attempts to extend the policy into the high school grades. Brown’s decision to veto last year’s bill cites local control from school teachers and administrators implement discipline policies better for students rather than the state. Suspensions codes on “willful defiance” referrals dropped by 46 percent in California in 2017, however, California teachers contend that students now realize there are no consequences for their behavior.

Similarly, Georgia’s bill looks to prevent a disproportionate reporting of behavior that does not rise to the level of suspension or expulsion, such as willful defiance. Students that disrupt the classroom would go through the systems of support to reduce escalation and keep students in class giving them a chance to learn. However, training for this statewide could be a challenge.

Margaret Ciccarelli of Georgia’s largest teacher’s organization, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE), said that bill’s premise is to help increase wrap-around services for students. The goal of wrap-around services would be to build constructive relationships and support networks among students and their families.

The bill states that before a student is suspended or expelled who has a special education plan or medical education plan, such as an IEP or Section 504, a meeting of the student’s education team would convene to review appropriate supports. Ciccarelli emphasized that PAGE supports the bill’s 5-day screening process for students who have special education plans or special medical provisions and further stated they support efforts that are going help get students ready to learn.

According to the newly amended legislation passed by Georgia Senate, if students have gone through the systems of support, appropriate school discipline measures would follow. This bill waives the 5-consecutive-day rule for students that bring a weapon, drugs, or other dangerous instruments to school. The bill requires that parents be notified when a student progresses through the next tier of support as directed by federal guidance, according to the legislation. However, some opponents of the bill say moving students within the lower tiers of support appears vague and could create confusion for school districts looking to implement the new support system.

Senator William Ligon (R-Brunswick) proposed an amendment that would strengthen parental notification in the lower tiers of support, but Ligon’s amendment was defeated by Senate leadership and officials within the Georgia Department of Education.

“I did not want to tie consent to federal law. And I wanted to make sure that parental consent was obtained before any evaluations occurred,” said Senator Ligon.

Similar restorative justice policies have recently come under fire after the school shooting in Parkland, FL where a student, Nikolas Cruz, was disciplined multiple times since middle school, according to the Miami Herald. Florida Senator Marco Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos asking her to review such policies allowing the gunman to skirt around law enforcement despite a well-known history of displaying disrupting behavior. Restorative justice policies look to emphasize behavior correction and counseling over punishment – which is often aligned with social-emotional learning initiatives.

AllOnGeorgia asked the Georgia Department of Education (DOE) to answer similar questions to clarify the parental notification federal requirement as indicated in HB 740 and if the DOE supported the measure, but DOE deferred AllOnGeorgia to Nix and would not answer if DOE supported the bill entirely.

“The purpose is to determine if these students have an underlying problem causing disruptive behavior; can they see, hear, and or speak normally.  My goal with HB 740 is to discover such issues early and get the help needed to allow the child to succeed in school,” said Rep. Randy Nix. 

Nix further explained that the bill does not alter the current process of school interventions for the students.

A column from a conservative publication, The Federalist, author’s Jane Robins, who works for conservative causes as a lobbyist in Georgia, and Erin Efferm write that social-emotional programs acting in a parental fashion can have unintended consequences.

Regardless of one’s opinions on a given issue, it is parents’ right and authority to discuss these issues with their children, not the government’s to set standardized norms about thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs. When government begins manipulating the mindsets of still developing and impressionable children, the dangers are legion.

The Georgia bill only addresses preschool through third grade but could easily be amended in “clean-up” bills in future legislative sessions to include higher grade levels. The original bill out of the House of Representatives passed with 157 Yes votes and 13 No votes. The Senate passed the bill on March 21, 2018, with 47 Yes votes and 5 No votes.

The bill now heads to Governor Nathan Deal’s desk for passage into law. The bill is likely to become law since Georgia passed the First Priority Act last year for the state to intervene in failing schools, which is a signature policy of Deal’s administration.

 

 

 

 

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Jeremy Spencer grew up in rural South Georgia and has served as a healthcare provider, high school science teacher, school administrator, and state education official. Jeremy is currently the market and content manager for All on Georgia-Camden and Glynn Counties. Jeremy’s focus is local news, statewide education issues, and statewide political commentary for the All on Georgia News Network. Jeremy has served as an education policy analyst for local legislators and state education leaders as well as a campaign strategist for local and statewide political campaigns. Jeremy holds degrees in science and education from the University of Georgia, Piedmont College, and Valdosta State University. Jeremy has lived in Camden County for over 17 years.

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