Legislation sparks debate over expulsions

Public schoolchildren who act out might face longer expulsions if a newly proposed Ohio law is enacted.

Republican-backed legislation would allow public school superintendents to expel students for longer and require administrators to develop assessments and action plans each time a student is expelled.

Under the bill, superintendents would have the power to expel students for up to 180 days if the student poses “imminent and severe endangerment to the health and safety” of school staff or fellow students.

Currently, state law allows school administrators to hand down expulsions for up to 80 school days or up to one school year, but only under limited circumstances, such as if the student makes a bomb threat or was caught carrying a firearm or knife to school.

Students can also be suspended for up to 10 days if they violate their school’s code of conduct. In rare circumstances, they can also be expelled permanently.

Expulsions typically only impact a small portion of the student population. The Dayton Daily News found roughly 150 students were either expelled or sent to an alternative public school during the 2012 to 2013 school year across districts in Beavercreek, Dayton, Fairborn, Kettering and Springboro. Officials at Dayton Public Schools send students to the Longfellow Alternative Academy in lieu of expulsion.

Proponents of the bill say handing down a stiffer penalty to students who pose a serious safety risk could potentially save hundreds of schoolchildren from harm.

“I’m hoping we can get this bill done in the spring so we can stop a bad situation here in the future,” said State Rep. Bill Hayes, the lawmaker sponsoring the bill who represents districts in Licking and Perry counties.

Worst-case scenario

Hayes acknowledged opposition to the legislation, House Bill 334, but said he expects it to pass. He said he was compelled to draft it after he was contacted by a public school superintendent.

It is intended to stiffen punishment for students who make threats on social media or in passing to other students, but don’t go as far as bringing a gun to school, he said.

“(The law) is something that should be used rather infrequently,” Hayes said. “We need something that, after a student has been expelled, we can help (them, but also) keep them out of the school community. This is to deal with the really potentially explosive situation.”

The proposed bill and a companion bill in the Senate come as schools across the U.S. have been rocked with a number of deadly shootings in the last two decades. As a result, school officials have to take threats lodged against students or faculty more literally, said Joni Copas, spokeswoman for Hamilton City Schools.

“You have to treat everything as worst-case scenario,” Copas said. “You want to make sure of what the (students) say, do, write and act.”

The bill would also introduce a new set of expulsion guidelines. Districts would be required to develop a plan for the expelled student to continue his or her education, create a set of benchmarks for the student to meet before returning to school and undergo a psychological assessment.

Those new rules could be a benefit for struggling students, said Tom Ash, director of governmental relations for the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, a Columbus-based organization that represents superintendents.

“We believe (the bill) is a way to incentivize families, whose children are in need of mental services,” Ash said, adding that he didn’t think the rules would be overused. “No superintendent likes to see children who are not in school.”

‘Polar-opposite’ bill

Opponents argue that the bill would make it too easy to kick kids out of school for arbitrary reasons.

Sarah Biehl, policy director for the Children’s Defense Fund, which has an office in Columbus, believes administrators should look at each student on a case-by-case basis and encourage alternatives, such as in-school suspensions where students can meet with counselors.

Because of its size, the Dayton Public School district is mandated under state law to run an alternative academy instead of expelling kids for violating conduct rules. This year, roughly 100 of Dayton’s public school students have been sent to Longfellow, the district’s alternative academy. There, students are put in smaller classrooms and assessment plans are developed to get them back into school.

“The goal is to return them to their home school,” said Jill Moberley, director of public information for Dayton Public Schools.

Biehl supports a “polar opposite” bill, Senate Bill 167, that encourages schools to move away from expulsions and suspensions. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Charleta Tavares, D-Columbus, seeks to eliminate the state law that requires schools to write a “zero-tolerance policy for violent, disruptive and inappropriate behavior.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the Republican-sponsored bill, supports SB 167 because of disparities in the number of minority and disabled students who are expelled or suspended in Ohio’s public schools.

“Where do you think these kids go?” Biehl said of expelled students. “These are our children. (Schools) need to take individual circumstances into account. Advocating for alternative approaches doesn’t mean we don’t discipline our students.”

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