An empty classroom ready for students
An empty classroom ready for students

Advocates are cautiously optimistic about newly released figures showing the number of students in kindergarten through second grade who were suspended in the 2020-21 school year is down markedly compared to the prior year, according to state Department of Education data.

But as many pointed out, it’s still too early to tell if the number of suspended students decreased because school districts are limiting the practice or if remote learning during the pandemic skewed the results.

“Any downward trend is good, even if some of the year for some of the students was remote,” said state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan in an email. “While the state has laudably focused on reducing suspension for this age group, the downward trend is further justification to ban the practice altogether.”

Eagan and others point to SDE numbers that show the practice disproportionately affects children of color and children with disabilities.

Instead of suspensions, Eagan and a legislative task force are recommending state support and creative measures to provide educators with avenues to deal with children who are having a crisis at school without barring them from the classroom.

“Suspending young children from school is harmful, counterproductive, ineffective as an educational and mental health intervention, and does nothing to provide educators with the supports and tools they need to meet the educational and developmental needs of children,” Eagan said.

Despite a law change in 2015 that narrowed the circumstances where a young child can be suspended or expelled, 670 children in kindergarten to second grade were issued 1,238 suspensions in the 2019-20 school year, Education Department data shows.

In the 2020-21 school year, the number of children in those grades who were suspended dropped to 168. The agency’s data website, EdSight, did not provide information on how many suspensions were issued to the 168 kids.

According to the state data, Hartford and Bridgeport led the state in the number of suspensions for children in the youngest grades with more than 50 each during the 2019-20 school year. But the numbers for both districts dropped measurably in 2020-21, with Bridgeport reporting at least one  kindergarten student suspended, at least one first-grade student suspended and seven second-graders suspended. Hartford reported the suspension of at least one kindergarten student, at least one first-grade student and at least one second-grader in the 2020-21 school year.

If there are fewer than six suspensions in any grade, school districts are not required to report the exact number to protect the privacy of the students. For instance, while Bridgeport reported at least one kindergarten student suspended, the actual number could be as high as five.

Under the 2015 law, schools can only suspend children in grade two and under if the child’s in-school behavior is “violent, endangers others or is of a sexual nature,” according to SDE documents.

Officials have been wrestling with the number of suspensions across all grades since at least 2017 when former SDE Commissioner Dianna Wentzell issued a memo to all superintendents to clarify the use of in-school and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for young children.

The number of students who were suspended or expelled has dropped across all grade levels each year since the 2015 law went into effect, according to SDE data. In the 2016-17 school year, 36,582 students were suspended or expelled compared to 7,522 last school year, the numbers showed.

But the steady decline over a number of years hasn’t dissuaded advocates or the legislature from considering how to end the practice for at least the state’s youngest students.

A 2021 law created a committee to study the impact of school suspensions on children in kindergarten to grade two and come up with recommendations on how to deal with the issue. The committee is meeting this week to finalize its report to the legislature.

The report is likely to include proposals that schools develop partnerships with community health providers and offer teachers more training in de-escalation. But many committee members – including administrators and educators – indicated that they will not recommend a full ban on suspending young children since most school districts have limited resources to hire more social workers and behavioral health staff. The same committee will then begin work on looking at suspensions in the older grades and file that report next year.

Despite the downward trend, Educators for Excellence, a Bridgeport-based teacher-led advocacy group, suggested that last year’s decline in suspensions may be temporary and shouldn’t prevent the committee from recommending more support for children in crisis and their teachers.

“While school suspension rates decreased during the 2020-2021 school year, it is important to remember that many students were not learning in the classroom for the entirety of the year and we anticipate seeing these numbers increase again this year as students return to the classroom,” the organization said in a statement. “We have been making some positive steps toward lowering exclusionary discipline, but we should not let these numbers halt our momentum. We still have a lot to accomplish to fully address the social and emotional well-being of all our students.”