Courtesy of CT-N
Donald Williams, executive director of CEA (Courtesy of CT-N)

HARTFORD, CT — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s decision to veto a bill that some felt would tackle classroom safety by allowing teachers to remove physically violent students prompted a spirited discussion Tuesday.

In his veto message last week, Malloy said he wouldn’t sign the bill because it would unfairly target minority students for punishment.

Those who worked on the bill gathered at the Legislative Office Building on Tuesday to express a range of feelings — from anger, to frustration, to hope that it would lead to a new, better bill in the future.

The legislation would require local and regional school boards, as well as the State Department of Education (SDE), to address daily classroom safety in a manner similar to how they must address bullying and teen dating violence under current law. It would allow teachers to remove students threatening harm to other students or teachers from the classroom.

Under the bill, SB 453, “daily classroom safety” means a classroom environment in which students and school employees are not physically injured by other students, school employees, or parents; or exposed to physical injury.

Malloy said: “As written, this bill creates too great a risk that students of color and those with disabilities will be disproportionately affected by its new removal powers.”

One of those most upset about Malloy’s veto was Donald Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association.

“It’s a shame that we have to be here today to defend a bill that helps students and that will lessen discriminatory and punitive discipline,” Williams said.

Williams said he was particularly bothered by a statement in Malloy’s veto message that referenced statistics in the state of Texas, which is one of the states Connecticut used to model its bill after, concerning student expulsion rates.

Malloy said “African Americans make up only 13 percent of the pre-K and elementary student populations in Texas but account for 47 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. Special education students represent 9 percent of the student population, but account for 21 percent of out-of-school suspensions. A 2011 study by the Council of State Governments of more than 1 million Texas students found that African American and Hispanic students were much more likely to be removed from their classroom than white students for discretionary reasons. Connecticut does not want to emulate Texas.”

The problem with the statistics that Malloy used, Williams said, is that for more of that time period he referred to the new Texas law wasn’t in effect.

“The governor got it wrong,” Williams said. “He used the wrong data. In point of fact expulsions have gone down in state of Texas” since Texas passed the legislation, Williams claimed.

But others in Tuesday’s discussion said they agreed with Malloy’s decision to veto the legislation, including Ellen Cohn, deputy commissioner of the State Department of Education.

“We will see racial disparities on day one, if the bill becomes law,” Cohn said. She added that members of her department were not heavily involved in the crafting of the bill but said, “We would love a do-over to be involved from the beginning.”

Subira Gordon, executive director of the Commission on Equity and Opportunity, added: “Every single time teachers are given discretion, kids of color are disproportionately impacted.”

Advocates of the bill pointed out continually during the two-hour discussion Tuesday that the bill in its final form was changed significantly from when it was first crafted, stating that the final language honed in on physical injury as the sole triggering issue.

But others said defining “physical injury” in and of itself could prove tricky.

Courtesy of CT-N
Child Advocate Sarah Eagan (Courtesy of CT-N)

Connecticut Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said “the intent of the bill is to get at a concern that is very real.” That being, she said, classroom safety for all involved.

But she added that the “huge elephant in the room” was when and if the current bill is overridden or a new bill becomes law that each and every school district not only has a policy to follow but the necessary resources to enact the policies in force.

The legislature will hold a veto session on Monday, June 25, but it’s unclear if this will be one of the bills that will be overridden. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said Tuesday that they still need to talk with their members about this specific legislation.

In his veto of the bill, Malloy said the bill “runs counter to the ongoing efforts of Connecticut’s dedicated educators and my administration to reduce exclusion from the classroom and to cut off the school-to-prison pipeline,” Malloy said in this veto message. “It also creates significant risks of litigation and federal penalties that could result in disastrous financial sanctions,” he added.

Malloy said even though Connecticut has made progress in reducing racial disparities in suspensions, expulsions, and other forms of exclusions, “with a disproportionate rate of both students of color and disabled students being involved in incidents that could fall under the broad definitions of this bill, there is too much risk that this legislation moves us backward.”

The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus had urged Malloy to veto the bill.

“Black and Hispanic students in Connecticut are suspended at more than double the rate of their white peers,” caucus co-chairs Rep. Christopher Rosario, D-Bridgeport, and Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, said in a joint statement.

“There is substantial research demonstrating that disproportionate discipline for children of color is related to implicit racial basis, not innate discrepancies in students’ behavior,” the statement added.

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said for reasons she didn’t understand the bill “fell off the radar screen in our organization. I do not know why that happened.”

Rabinowitz added, however, that she agrees that classroom safety is an issue.

“We are more than willing to continue the dialogue … I never want it said that we want this problem ignored,” Rabinowitz said.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, Steven Hernandez, executive director of the Commission on Women, Children and Seniors, told fellow advocates that they shouldn’t be discouraged by Malloy’s veto.

“We are a little bit closer to getting there,” Hernandez said. “We will commit to continue to work to move the needle forward.”