Punishing students with out-of-school suspensions for wearing hats or buying candy makes little sense, either as effective discipline or as a means of improving educational outcomes for children. But Connecticut students have been suspended from school for such offenses. In fact, a majority of the suspensions in Connecticut schools during the 2007/2008 school year were for “school policy violations,” such as truancy or showing disrespect. So students who skip school are often “rewarded” by getting a mandatory day of “vacation” from school.
Nearly all policy makers agree that suspensions should be limited to situations in which they are necessary. That’s why, in response to well-documented problems with inappropriate uses of suspensions in Connecticut, a law to reform their use was approved in 2007 with strong bipartisan support. Governor Rell was unequivocal when she signed the law: “Students should be removed from the school setting only under the most exceptional circumstances…Keeping children out of school is a direct line to delinquent behavior…It’s a recipe for failure.”
Yet state lawmakers are now under pressure to support a bill to delay implementation of this common sense law for a third time. Why the opposition to carrying out a common sense reform? These calls for further delays are often based on a misunderstanding of the law and its impact on schools.
Connecticut’s suspension law limits out-of-school suspensions to situations where they are necessary to protect students or property or prevent disruptions to the educational process. School administrators have full discretion to determine when this threshold is met.
Some town officials argue that the law requires schools to create new in-school suspension programs for children who would otherwise be sent home, requiring additional staff and often additional space. But Connecticut’s suspension law does not require in-school suspensions; indeed, schools can be in complete compliance without any in-school suspension programming whatsoever. Schools remain free to employ a wide range of alternative low-cost disciplinary strategies, such as detention, withdrawal of privileges, parent meetings, peer mediation, counseling, referral to services, and positive reinforcement for good behavior. And when a child’s behavior is so disruptive or dangerous that it can’t be dealt with in school, local administrators retain their ability to suspend that student.
Many schools in Connecticut are already doing an excellent job of promoting student discipline while keeping children in school, often through a range of creative, common sense, and age-appropriate interventions. Prompt implementation of the law will encourage these districts to continue their existing disciplinary policies while encouraging other districts to adopt best practices that improve discipline and achievement.
Some town officials also argue that it is unfair for the state to impose a “mandate” on towns without fully funding it. However, this law is not unfunded. It was passed in 2007, when the Governor and the legislature enacted unprecedented increases in state funding for education. The state is not asking local school districts to educate children who are not “theirs.” Schools receive full funding for students they suspend. The state is simply saying that districts may not deny educational privileges to students in their schools – and for whom they receive state money, unless excluding such children is – in the opinion of school administrators – necessary. This is entirely fitting.
The financial plight of towns is so severe that legislators understandably want to help out and show that they understand. Legislative proposals to delay the suspension law are intended to respond to this concern. But at what cost?
Extensive research demonstrates that excluding children from school contributes to juvenile delinquency, increased dropout rates, and weakened academic performance. In 2005-2006 and again in 2006-2007, over 250,000 school days were lost to out-of-school suspensions. Kindergartners in Connecticut lost 2,000 days to school discipline in 2005-2006 alone.
Punishing children by denying them educational opportunity is a waste of human capital that we cannot afford in the best of times, much less in a recession. If cities and towns are serious about promoting economic growth and opportunity, they must support policies that give our children a shot at being competitive with children in Europe and Asia. Connecticut’s children belong in school.
Alexandra Dufresne, J.D. is a Senior Policy Fellow with Connecticut Voices for Children and co-author of the report, “Missing Out: Suspending Students from Connecticut Schools” (August 2008). Jamey Bell, J.D. is the Executive Director of Connecticut Voices for Children.