The state legislature has passed a bill that will prohibit the use of out-of-school suspensions at the preschool to second grade level.
Senate Bill 1053-introduced by the Education Committee and signed by Governor Dan Malloy on June 23-comes after a three-year period saw a spike in the number of out-of-school suspensions imposed on children under the age of 7 and amidst a growing outcry regarding the disproportionate impact the sanction has had on students of color.
“Research shows that excluding students from the classroom leads to a host of negative life outcomes,” said Sarah Iverson, Associate Policy Fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, a child advocacy group that joined a chorus of proponents-among them educators and psychiatrists-in lobbying for the bill. “It’s rarely the right path to take.”
But it is one that was taken even with students at the youngest grade levels. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of out-of-school suspensions for children under the age of 7 jumped from 1200 to around 1600, according to data from the Connecticut Department of Education.
The Hartford school district led the way with 184 out-of-school suspensions during that period. The next highest was Waterbury’s 140, followed by 133 in Bridgeport. New Haven’s 67 was fifth from the top-just behind New Britain’s 77 out-of-school suspensions.
“The biggest predictor of a subsequent suspension is a suspension during their early years,” Iverson said. “They’re not even a deterrent to the behavior. It’s important to get to the root causes for the students misbehavior, especially at a younger age.”
Those root causes can be trouble at home-such as challenges related to poverty-learning difficulties, or emotional problems, she said.
“Students of color, students from poorer backgrounds, and special education students are more likely to be suspended,” Iverson said.
For students of color, two to three times more likely, in fact. The rate of suspensions-in-school or out-of-school-and expulsions for students in grades K-12 dropped from 9 percent to 7.5 percent between 2009 and 2014, but the rate for African Americans was 20 percent compared to 5 percent for their white peers. Hispanic students saw a 15 percent suspension/expulsion rate, according to the State Department of Education.
“It hurts them-there’s no positive benefit for a kid to be out of school,” said Glen Cassis, a former Hartford educator and Chair of the African American Affairs Commission. “It’s common sense.”
As to why the sanctions are imposed on minority students at a greater rate, Cassis says that that has a lot to do with what both schools and students have-or don’t have-at their disposal. Staff might not be trained to handle situations involving kids that are not “school ready”-possibly as a result of being deprived early childhood educational opportunities, he said.
“I think some schools are under-resourced,” he said. “It’s much easier to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
But what typically prompts a student to be suspended? Cassis says that he has seen it all. Sure, there was one incident where a first grader tried to choke a classmate-one of the more severe cases-but many other situations were far more minor, he said.
“There have been issues if a kid talked back to a teacher, or if they don’t have the proper attire,” Cassis said.
Two thirds of suspensions or expulsions were for school policy violations, according to the Department. For related out-of-school suspensions, over 7,100 were administered to African American students-compared to 3,498 for whites. School policy violation-prompted out-of-school suspensions numbered 5,596 for Hispanic students.
As for the bill, Cassis sees it as a step forward, but he says that given the wider impact the sanctions have across the grade level spectrum, it could have gone further.
“My personal view is that it should be all the way up to the middle school,” he said.