In the realm of public policy, well-intentioned reforms can often have unintended consequences that lead to very negative outcomes. This will surely be the case if Senate Bill 1435, which allows schools to indefinitely suspend students of any age if they are accused of assault, is allowed to become law.
Under current law, and it is a poor law on the books in defense of those seeking changes, a school can suspend students for assault for the current semester and the entire next semester. The students must be in grades six through twelve to receive this punishment. SB 1435 would eliminate that requirement and allow students of any age – even very young students – to be suspended for assault.
The new language also allows, but does not require, alternatives for out-of-school suspension. For instance, a school could offer reverse suspension, which requires a parent or legal guardian to shadow the student being punished for a specified number of days (although there is no penalty for non-compliance and it is unclear how this could be enforced). It could also require a student to participate in service activities with parental support. In addition, a school could require a student undergo professional counseling, although SB 1435 does not say who will pay for this.
I understand the desire of those pushing this bill to protect teachers from violence. Supporters of SB 1435 feel schools should have their hands untied when determining what punishment is most appropriate for students who act out. That being said, the negative impact on children and the potential for systemic abuses against students is alarming.
Today, expulsion is not allowed for children, even under the worst circumstances. SB 1435 would allow schools to “suspend” students for any amount of time, including indefinitely. Though it would not be called an expulsion, the bill would still set the stage for permanently removing students from the classroom.
To make matters worse, no suspension could be appealed beyond the school board level. This means local school boards would have the complete and final say on what happens to the educational future of a child. The elimination of an appeals process beyond the school board is fundamentally unfair to students; even convicts on death row have an appeals process open to them.
Furthermore, the definition of “assault” is vague under Oklahoma law. If there is some outward aggressive behavior, even if no words are spoken, that qualifies. Actions like balling a fist or moving toward another person in a threatening manner can be assault. This will be determined by the local school officials, not the courts.
Children, especially those with special needs or undergoing severe trauma in their lives, need assistance. If Senate Bill 1435 passes, a school could choose to devastate these children during their greatest time of need. Please contact your legislators and ask them for common sense reforms to this area of the law which help teachers and students, not this bill, which would give up on kids when they need help the most.
According to a report in December by Tulsa public radio, 24,625 Oklahoma children in grades 6 through 12 were suspended for some amount of time — one day, three days, a semester — during the 2016-2017 school year. Nearly 70% of those students were male, and males comprise a higher proportion of suspended students at all levels in 6th through 12th grades. The number of students getting out-of-school suspensions peaked in 7th grade overall for boys, in ninth grade for girls.
Oklahoma schools gave students in 6th through 12th grades almost 71,000 in-school suspensions last school year.
“In-school suspension is where a student is serving his/her punishment within the school day, within the school building, but their movement and their interaction may be limited,” according to Oklahoma State Department of Education Director of Alternative Education Jennifer Wilkinson.
The State Education Department tracks in-school suspensions by number of incidents and out-of-school suspensions by number of students. The number of in-school suspensions peaked in 8th grade, with almost 14,000 of them issued; high-school seniors got fewer than 4,400.
Breaking down these statistics further, according to Oklahoma Watch, special education students in 1,774 Oklahoma public schools were often far more likely than their peers to be paddled, suspended or expelled in the 2011-2012 school year, the latest year for which federal data is available.
This information can make a direct correlation with what impact suspensions will have with students in their adult years. In an interview with The Oklahoman newspaper in 2015, former Tulsa Public Schools Supt. Dr. Keith Ballard stated, “When schools are suspending students at high rates, we are, in fact, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. (African-American students) are significantly more likely to be suspended than students of another race.”
The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy defines the school-to-prison pipeline as “a social phenomenon where legal policies, education policies and social constructs funnel struggling children from schools to jails and prisons.”
Factors that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline include poverty, implicit bias, school policies (e.g., zero tolerance, overemphasis on testing), ineffective strategies for meeting the needs of students with disabilities, and failure to address trauma-related issues tied to the destruction of traditional Native American cultures, according to Tulsa author, diversity consultant and historian Hannibal Johnson.
Oklahoma ranks second highest in the nation for incarceration rates, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Recently released data shows 673 people incarcerated per 100,000 residents in Oklahoma, trailing only Louisiana’s 760 inmates per 100,000 residents. The national average was 397 per 100,000. Oklahoma continued to rank highest in the nation – as it has for more than two decades – for its incarceration rate of women, according to the report.
“The single largest predictor of later arrest among adolescent females is having been suspended, expelled or held back,” Johanna Wald wrote in “Deconstructing the School-to-Prison Pipeline: New Directions for Youth Development”, citing a 2001 report by the American Bar Association.
OICA CEO Joe Dorman