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School buses parked on a lot in Stafford Springs Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

The committee created by the legislature to study the impact of school suspensions on Connecticut’s youngest children will likely recommend providing more resources and training to teachers to de-escalate problems before removing young children from school. 

That’s according to Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

However, they probably won’t ask the legislature to outright ban the practice which impacted more than 650 kindergarten through second grade students in the 2019-20 school year.

“I don’t think anyone on this committee believes we should be suspending children in kindergarten to grade two, but I don’t think there are the resources in schools to deal with them,” Rabinowitz said.

Despite a law change in 2015 that more narrowly defined the circumstances under which a young child can be suspended or expelled, 670 children in kindergarten to grade two were issued 1,238 suspensions in the 2019 – 2020 school year, state Department of Education data shows.

The number of in-school and out-of-school suspensions for young children has decreased by 50 to 70% since the 2015 law change, Rabinowitz said. “But there are still pockets where suspensions are taking place,” she said.

Questions remain on how to deal with suspensions since there is scant funding for districts to hire more support staff and many educators said even with funding people to fill the positions, people aren’t applying, some task force members said.

The committee created by lawmakers earlier this year requires it to study the impact of suspensions on young children and look at alternatives to the practice. In accordance with the 2021 law, the task force must issue a report on their findings in January. The committee will then begin work on examining alternatives to suspensions and expulsions in the higher grades.

During a meeting Monday, the group heard the findings from several focus groups including educators, administrators and board of education members. The conclusion was nearly unanimous: Districts don’t like suspending young children, but in a situation where there are not enough supports in place to help, many educators have no other choice, committee members said.

“I don’t like the idea of suspending our youngest kids,” Wolcott Superintendent of Schools Tony Gasper, who was not in favor of an outright ban until districts receive help, said. “I’m very in favor of putting resources in place first.”

The pandemic has impacted the behavior of students, said Dr. Daniele Cooper, a University of New Haven associate professor of criminal justice and the research director for the Tow Youth Justice Institute who conducted the focus groups.

Young children in kindergartens to grade two likely missed the opportunity to gain classroom readiness skills by attending pre-school or regular school when schools were shut down during the pandemic, Cooper said.

“Nobody said we have to punish these dang kids more,” Cooper said of the discussions with more than 60 educators and administrators.

What they need is solid support for teachers and kids so that entire classrooms aren’t impacted by the needs of a child who is struggling, Cooper said.

Teachers are concerned about whether they can teach while dealing with a child who is dysregulated, Cooper said. There isn’t always support in the classroom, and at times there may have been support systems set up under one administration but when leadership changed, the support dissipated, Cooper said.

“There is an actual imbalance when teachers try to deal with 20 kids in a classroom but have to deal with one kid,” Cooper said. “What are the services they need? And what does the student, class and teacher need to reset?”

Students were in crisis before the pandemic, but the public health crisis has ramped up their needs even beyond what school officials were dealing with, said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, one of several advocates who were calling for a ban on the suspension of young children during the 2021 legislative session.

Porter described the scene Monday as she was standing with parents outside of a New Haven school on lockdown due to a gun threat. It was the second firearm threat at a New Haven county school in the past few days.

As she was talking with a mother who was waiting for her older daughter to be released from the school, the woman’s younger daughter was crying, Porter said. “The tears were just streaming down her face,” Porter recalled. “We haven’t done a good job of addressing the mental health these kids need.”

The group must come up with recommendations by January. But after a spirited discussion, it seemed unlikely that they would include a complete ban on suspensions for children in kindergarten through grade two without clear plans to provide support to teachers.

“I do not like suspensions, I do not like expulsions,” said Rabinowitz, a former Superintendent of Bridgeport schools. “Give me some resources and then you can tell me I can no longer do it.”