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

Members of the Juvenile Justice Policy and Oversight Committee voted Thursday to move forward with proposed legislation that would require the state to fund supports for school districts to cut the number of suspensions for children in kindergarten through second grade.

But the committee stopped short of seeking a law change that would ban the practice of expelling or suspending young children, saying it was a goal for the future.

“We have to come up with a different way of doing it,” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said. “If we look at the chart, what we are doing has not worked, we still continually have more children suspended.”

Overall, the number of suspensions and expulsions has dropped across all grade levels since 2015. But the practice of suspending young children hasn’t stopped in many school districts across the state, data provided by the state Department of Education shows.

There were 670 students in kindergarten to second grade who were suspended 1,238 times in the 2019-2020 school year. In person classes during that school year stopped in March due to the pandemic, so the figures are incomplete. The number of suspensions for students in kindergarten to second grade in 2018-2019 school year was 1,926, the data shows.

That’s far too many, according to a subcommittee of JJPOC charged by law with looking at ways to reduce the number of suspensions which disproportionately impacts children of color and children with disabilities.

“The members of the committee (examining school suspensions) agree that excluding students from school, especially students in grade two and below is not a good policy . . .,” according to the report on their work filed by the subcommittee earlier this week.

The group recommended several proposals for potential legislation including requiring the state to fund supports for school districts to provide services to young students who are acting out in school. But the sub-committee stopped short of defining a dollar amount, which they said would be up to individual schools and school districts. The legislation would go into effect on July 1.

Other recommendations included expanding programs that are working to reduce behavioral issues in the classroom, requiring the state Education Department to develop training and peer-to-peer programs to provide teachers with the tools to de-escalate issues in their classrooms, and schools should inventory their staff including mental health clinicians to determine how many more employees they would need to provide supports to children in crisis.

The subcommittee pointed out in their report that the goal is to “create a continuum of social-emotional supports, including a comprehensive system of support to help students exhibiting challenging behaviors.”

But the one recommendation they couldn’t agree on was whether or not to seek a law change that would ban the practice of suspending children in kindergarten to second grade. Under a 2015 law, children in those grades can only be suspended if they are engaging in conduct that is “violent” or of a “sexual nature.”

Instead, the subcommittee opted to make it a future goal to consider seeking a ban based on how well the recommendations to provide supports were moving forward. But even that proposal drew fire from some JJPOC members who were concerned about the safety of the teacher and other students.

“I want to make sure that other students aren’t injured,” said Rep. Patrick Callahan, R-New Fairfield, who ultimately voted against considering a ban at a future date.

“I don’t think the object is to ignore the behaviors,” Walker said. “It’s to give the appropriate interventions to the child.”

Others including state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan called the practice of suspending young children “harmful” and pointed out that the law labels children as violent. “It’s detrimental language,” said Attorney Kathryn Meyer from the Center for Children’s Advocacy.

JJPOC members also voted to send a proposal that would pilot a study of 911 calls made from 10 “Opportunity” school districts to police to deal with behavioral issues which would include demographic information on the child and how the incident was handled. The study would be done with a memorandum of understanding with 911 dispatch, the committee said.

The 10 districts that will be examined are low performing and receiving help from the state. 

As part of that recommendation, JJPOC would also will seek to review information on calls to 211 made by schools.

During a previous meeting the committee agreed to advance to the legislature initiatives that would expand the committee and prevent juveniles from being arrested for certain petty crimes in favor of diversionary programs.

The entire package will be forwarded to the Judiciary Committee for review. Members expect that public hearings on the proposed legislation will take place soon.