Article 13 of Oklahoma’s Constitution begins: “The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.” That commitment to educate all of the children in our state is prominent in our founding document. Yet in the face of shrinking resources for schools, higher class sizes, and more inexperienced teachers, some Oklahoma lawmakers are proposing we go in the opposite direction. To establish better control over classrooms, Senate Bill 81 by Sen. Ron Sharp (R-Shawnee) proposes to suspend more kids — effectively giving up on Oklahoma’s obligation to provide them with an education.
The bill, which passed the Senate and now awaits a hearing in the House, would extend the law allowing out-of-school suspensions from sixth grade and up all the way down to third graders. Kids as young as 8 or 9 years old would face out-of-school suspension for two semesters if they are “found to have assaulted, attempted to cause physical bodily injury, or acted in a manner that could reasonably cause bodily injury” to a school employee or volunteer. Some opportunities for appeal are provided in the law, but the default punishment would be suspension, whether or not actual harm to a school employee occurred.
Expanding suspensions is a solution proven to fail
Numerous studies have revealed that detentions, suspension and expulsion do not curb violent or disruptive behavior. In fact, highly punitive approaches to school discipline are shown to increase problem behaviors like rebellion against teachers, vandalism, absenteeism, and truancy. Kids who act out violently are suffering from serious emotional and behavioral problems that also make them the least likely to be deterred by a harsh punishment.
Suspending very young children only magnifies this problem. It’s worse than useless to suspend children who, as one early childhood education expert described it, “are still learning to read, control their bodies and manage their emotions to deal with their behavior problems.” Children won’t learn to better control these behaviors if our response is to refuse to teach them.
The message sent by suspension is that we reject kids who show troubling behaviors instead of caring enough to repair those behaviors.
Often the kids facing suspension have the most difficult issues at home. For example, a study found children who experience food insecurity are twice as likely to have been suspended from school. For these kids, taking away access to school meals will make whatever issues they were struggling with much worse.
The message sent by suspension is that we reject kids who show troubling behaviors instead of caring enough to repair those behaviors. That message doesn’t only harm the kids facing suspension — it can demoralize the whole student population. One large study in Kentucky found that higher numbers of suspensions is associated with lower reading and math scores for non-suspended students, even after controlling for levels of violence, school funding, and student-teacher ratios.
SB 81 goes against efforts to reduce suspensions in Oklahoma and across the U.S.
Last year, Oklahoma City Public Schools settled with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights over the district’s extremely high suspension rates of black students. The district had been under investigation for several years, and an internal audit confirmed many of the problems identified by the Office of Civil Rights. In response, Oklahoma City adopted a new school discipline plan that provided a 10-day remedial program as an alternative to suspension. Tulsa Public Schools has also found serious racial and economic disparities in their rates of suspension, and new Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist has made it one of her priorities to reduce suspensions across the district.
Other states are going even further to take on this issue. A 2014 law in California banned suspensions for “willful defiance”, and schools across the state have successfully focused on reducing suspensions and seen higher academic achievement as a result.
Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools banned out-of-school suspensions altogether. Instead students are sent to a “Success Center” that offers alternative education for the most at-risk students. Oklahoma also has developed proven alternative education programs, but lawmakers cut these programs dramatically in recent years due to the state’s chronic budget shortfalls.
We have better solutions to keep classrooms safe
SB 81 does include language directing schools to require suspended students to complete some kind of intervention or prevention program or meet with a mental health provider. That intervention is key, though it’s not clear how it will be provided when we already have long waiting lists for care and close to the lowest funding of mental health services in the nation.
The problem is that while SB 81 calls for schools to provide necessary interventions, it does far more damage by taking kids out of school where they are most likely to receive that care. Oklahoma’s obligation is to help students with serious mental health and behavior problems while they are in school. We can do that with the social skills training and interventions in small groups that are shown to reduce depression, anxiety, and acting out.
That may not be easy — especially when school staffers are already overwhelmed and underpaid. It requires commitment from lawmakers to fund the programs that work, leadership from administrators to guide school discipline policies in a constructive direction, and daily courage by teachers, counselors and other school staff to reach the kids who need it most.
It’s not easy, but it’s a promise we made in our state Constitution. Let’s fulfill that promise instead of giving up on kids.