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

The committee formed by the legislature to study school suspensions of children in pre-kindergarten to second grade is hoping that their recommendations will reduce the number of kids being taken out of school to the point there will be no need to ban the practice.

“This should look at what it takes to reduce it to zero,” said Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, an advocate for reducing school suspensions who was appointed to the committee by the legislature. “This needs to be effective and efficient. When I go back to Representative Walker, I need to say this is what we’re going to do and this is what we need.”

Porter is referring to Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, one of the chairs of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee which proposed the formation of the suspension committee. It will be up to Walker, who is also one of the chairs of the Appropriations Committee, to back any legislation that the suspension committee needs to get the recommendations implemented.

It may not be an easy task, committee members acknowledged. Many of the recommendations including finding ways to provide training in trauma-informed practices in the classroom and expanding existing programs aimed at reducing suspensions in high school and middle school to the lower grades require funding from the legislature that would have to be in place over the long term.

The group is focusing on drafting a document that would expand services for children who are having behavior issues at school without taking them out of the classroom for extended periods of time. The hope is to have school districts utilize more behavioral health professionals within the school district and within the community which would reduce the number of calls to police to deal with children in crisis.

Any talk of reducing suspensions also needs to include the banning of the practice of calling parents to pick up their child during the school day but not reporting the removal of the child as a suspension, said Attorney Kathryn Meyer with the Connecticut Center for Children’s Advocacy.

If a child is removed from the classroom for more than 90 minutes during the school day, that should be reported to the state as a suspension, Porter and Meyer said. But Meyer told the group she knows of at least three schools who engage in the practice of calling parents to pick up their children but do not count the removal as a suspension.

“If the suspensions aren’t being reported, we’re not understanding the needs of that district,” Meyer said.

The recommendations discussed during a meeting Wednesday included requiring the state Department of Education to identify districts with a high number of suspensions to provide support and training. The committee’s co-chair Fran Rabinowitz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of School Superintendents, would like to mandate no more than 20 children in a classroom in pre-kindergarten to grade two as a way of reducing suspensions.

“This is something I feel incredibly strongly about,” Rabinowitz, a former superintendent of Bridgeport schools, said. “In pre-kindergarten to second grade the most important person in a child’s life is a child’s teacher. And no one needs it more than the challenged communities. If you put 20 students in a classroom with an effective and well-trained teacher, I don’t think there’s anything that can replace that. The data bares it out. This is an equity issue.”

But as of Wednesday, it was unclear if the recommendation was within the scope of what the committee was asked to do.

The committee created by lawmakers in 2021 is required 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.

But it will be at least another two weeks before the final draft of the report will be ready for approval by the entire committee. When the report is approved, it will be sent to the legislature. Some of the recommendations will need to be codified in law while others will be adopted by the state Department of Education as policy for school districts throughout the state.

After the report is finished, the committee will then begin work on examining alternatives to suspensions and expulsions in the higher grades.

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.

In the 2020 – 2021 school year, the number of children in those grades who suspended dropped to 168. The SDE data website EdSight EdSight – Connecticut State Department of Education did not list information on how many suspensions were issued to the 168 kids.

But advocates expressed concern that the reduction in suspensions was temporary since many school districts did virtual learning in the 2020-2021 school year due to the pandemic. Temporary Or Trend: Suspensions For Youngest Students Fall | CT News Junkie

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 state Department of Education documents.

The problem with the 2015 law is that it narrowed the circumstances by which a child can be suspended but left open to interpretation the definition of “violent” behavior, Meyer said.

The committee had already signaled during their December meeting that calling for a ban on suspensions was unlikely.

Instead the group decided that their goal would be to reduce the number of exclusionary disciplines to zero through the implementation of the recommendations and then reexamine the issue in a year to see if more needed to be done.

“I’m really quite pleased with the conversation today,” said committee co-chair Steven Hernandez, the executive director of the state’s Commission on Women, Children and Seniors. “If some of the steps were implemented, that would continue to drive the numbers down.”