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From The Register-Guard: Bill would limit school expulsions

Elementary schools would be allowed to eject students only if they do serious harm or are a threat to safety

SALEM ­— Oregon elementary schools would be barred from suspending or expelling students for causing repeated disruption or other minor disciplinary problems, under a bill moving through the Legislature.

The policy takes aim at disciplinary tactics that schools disproportionally use against minority students and students with disabilities, backers say.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 553 on a bipartisan 27-3 vote Tuesday. It now heads to the House.

Under current law, public schools must consider a child’s age before suspending or expelling them. But advocates of SB 553 say that even so, 8,000 elementary school students were suspended in the 2013-14 school year, most of them for minor infractions, which include repeated classroom disruption.

“I heard that number, and I said, ‘Good grief with gravy, we’ve got to do something about that,’ ” said Sen. Sara Gelser, a Corvallis Democrat and chief sponsor of SB 553.

SB 553 would allow schools to take an elementary student out of the classroom only if the student caused “serious physical harm to students or school employees” or if a school administrator “determines student’s conduct poses a direct threat to the health or safety of students or school employees.”

Gelser said grade school students have a right to go to school “no matter how challenging they are to address.” Otherwise they lose valuable class time and fall behind their peers, leading to more serious problems later, she said.

“Taking away an 8-year-old’s education is too much of a punishment, regardless of what the infraction is,” she added.

Research has shown — both nationally and in Oregon — that minority students have higher suspension rates than white students.

The Portland-based advocacy group Youth, Rights, & Justice, which drafted the bill, found that, during the 2012-13 school year, one out of 28 African-American students was suspended or expelled in kindergarten, compared with one out of 100 white students. African-­American students in the fifth grade also were about three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as white students, the study found.

Students with disabilities also are more likely to be suspended from school, Gelser said.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day said “some of these zero-tolerance provisions (for behaviors leading to suspensions) are just misguided.” He added that the statistics appear to show that racial biases play a role in school suspensions.

“This is a statistically valid sample that shows some kids get treated differently than others in our schools,” he said.

But Sen. Betsy Johnson expressed concern that the bill implied that schools are “capriciously” suspending students, when schools often turn to that option only as a last resort.

“We hire professionals to run our schools. We ought to trust them to make judgments about the kids. I wonder if this is too proscriptive,” she said.

The bill in its current form isn’t opposed by school boards or administrators.

Read the rest of the story at The Register-Guard

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