D.C. Council member David Grosso’s first bill as Education Committee chairman — seeking a partial ban on suspensions and expulsions of preschool students in public programs — got a strong response from advocates who urged him to push for more sweeping reforms of student discipline practices.
Most of the school leaders, parents and education advocates at a hearing Wednesday welcomed his effort to curb harsh discipline in students’ earliest years, when they are beginning to learn appropriate social behavior. But they said it’s a drop in the bucket.
“We must acknowledge that this is just one step to ending the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Maggie Riden, executive director of D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates.
In the city’s 2012-2013 school year, there were 181 out-of-school suspensions of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, according to a report by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. More than 10,000 of the District’s 80,000 students were suspended at least once that year, according to the report.
Some advocated extending limits on suspensions and expulsions to include kindergarten, the official start of school when families are most optimistic. Others suggested a third-grade cutoff to include the formative first eight years of life, and there were those who argued for stricter discipline limits for all students.
Middle schools had the highest suspension rates in the District, according to the report. African American students were almost six times as likely to be suspended or expelled as white students. Rates were also higher for children in foster care, are homeless or have disabilities.
“These are some of our most vulnerable children,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center. “We are telling them we don’t want them to learn by putting them out of school.”
The bill by Grosso (I-At Large) prohibits suspending or expelling pre-kindergarten students except in cases involving weapons or drugs or when a student threatens or causes “serious bodily injury.” It also requires D.C. Public Schools and charter schools to submit annual reports to the OSSE about suspensions in the previous year.
The main opponents of the bill were charter school leaders, who said that the publicly funded but independently operated schools should have autonomy to set their own discipline policies.
Scott Pearson, director of the D.C. Public Charter School Board, said that rates of suspensions and expulsions have already fallen in charter schools since the board began collecting and publishing discipline data from the schools.
Leslie Hatton told the council that two sons were expelled last year from charter schools — one in middle school and one in high school — after multiple rounds of suspensions. Both sons were dealing with mental health challenges that the schools did not identify or treat, she said. She urged the council to think broadly about the issue.
Grosso said he wants to provide more resources to schools to treat mental health issues that often lead children to act out. And he plans to continue looking at school discipline policies, but he said that starting with the youngest students makes immediate sense.
“I believe we should be giving these kids hugs — we shouldn’t be giving them the hand,” Grosso said.