Proposed law sparks debate over student expulsions

Public schoolchildren who act out might face longer expulsions if a newly proposed state law is enacted.

Republican-backed legislation calls to allow superintendents to expel certain students for longer and require school administrators to develop assessments and action plans every time a student is expelled from a public school.

Under the bill, superintendents would have the power to expel students for up to 180 days if the student poses “imminent and severe endangerment to the health and safety” of school staff or fellow students.

Currently, state law allows school administrators to hand down expulsions for up to 80 days and up to one school year, but only if the student makes a bomb threat or was caught carrying a firearm or knife to school.

Expulsions typically only impact a small portion of the student population — the Journal-News found more than 500 students were either recommended for expulsion or expelled during the 2012-2013 school year across the Hamilton, Lakota, Middletown and Talawanda school districts.

But, proponents of the bill say handing down a stiffer penalty to students who pose a serious safety risk could potentially save hundreds of schoolchildren from harm one day.

“I’m hoping we can get this bill done in the spring so we can stop a bad situation here in the future,” said State Rep. Bill Hayes, the lawmaker sponsoring the bill who represents districts in Licking and Perry counties.

The worst-case scenario

Hayes said he was compelled to draft House Bill 334, which would allow for longer expulsions, after one of his constituents — a superintendent at a public school — came to him with a problem.

His bill is meant to impact a tiny number of students who make threats on social media or in passing to students, for example, but don’t go as far as bringing a gun to school, he added.

“(The law) is something that should be used rather infrequently,” Hayes said. “We need something that, after a student has been expelled, we can help the student but with possibility to keep them out of the school community. This is to deal with the really potentially explosive situation.”

The proposed legislation comes as schools across the U.S. have been rocked with a number of deadly massacres in the last two decades, prompting many school officials to take any threat lodged against students or faculty more literally, said Joni Copas, spokeswoman for Hamilton City Schools.

“Unfortunately, I think you have to take everything seriously now-a-days,” Copas said. “You have to treat everything as worst-case scenario. You want to make sure of what the (students) say, do, write and act.”

The bill would also introduce a new set of guidelines surrounding student expulsions, which Matt Tudor, the director of student affairs for the district, said would be a positive move.

Under the proposed law, school districts would be required to develop a plan for the expelled student to continue his or her education, create a set of benchmarks for the student to meet before returning to the public school and undergo a psychological assessment.

Tudor said each expulsion is different; last year, 456 students were recommended for expulsion within the district. Often, however, they’re the result of physical violence or drug-related misbehavior. Administrators at his school have been reviewing their code of conduct and are considering adding more action plans for students who are expelled from the system.

“It seems like (the law) is written, not just to throw kids out of school, but it’s to really help them get back into school and get them mental health help,” Tudor said. “I think that’s something that we’re currently looking at.”

‘Where do these kids go?’

But some argue the Republican-sponsored bill would do just that: make it too easy to kick kids out of school for an arbitrary reason.

Hayes said he thinks his legislation will pass later this year but admitted the proposed bill got “a lot of objection” during a hearing late last year.

Sarah Biehl, the policy director for the Children’s Defense Fund, a policy group that focuses on children’s issues in Columbus, objects to the bill over concerns about making public schools’ approach to expulsions too aggressive. She believes administrators should look at each student on a case-by-case basis and encourage alternatives to expulsions, such as in-school suspensions where students can meet with counselors.

“Where do you think these kids go?” Biehl said of expelled students. “These are our children, (schools) need to take individual circumstances into account. Advocating for alternative approaches doesn’t mean we don’t discipline our students.”

She is supporting the ‘polar opposite’ bill, Senate Bill 167, that some of Ohio’s Democratic lawmakers have introduced to encourage schools to move away from expulsions and suspensions. The bill seeks to eliminate the state law that requires schools to write a “zero-tolerance policy for violent, disruptive and inappropriate behavior.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the Republican-sponsored bill, supports the zero-tolerance policy elimination legislation, citing unfair disparities in the number of minority and disabled students who are expelled or suspended in Ohio’s public schools.

Biehl also wants to see schools focus on rewarding positive behavior instead of punishing for negative actions.

In Middletown, public school administrators implemented a nationwide program called Positive Behavior Supports in 2011, which encourages a ‘positive mindset’ and incentives for good behavior, said Sam Ison, superintendent for Middletown City Schools. Since then, expulsions have dropped from 58 in 2010 to 21 last school year.

Lakota School District Assistant Superintendent Robb Vogelmann said he understands both arguments made by legislators in Columbus. Vogelmann said he “never wants” to expel a student. Only four of the nearly 17,000 students attending the schools were expelled last year.

“That’s one of the worst things you can do for a student, is expel them, because you’re taking away their free education,” Vogelmann said. “We know that’s the most serious consequence you can issue to a student, we view that as a very serious thing.”

Still, loosening zero-tolerance policies across the state is cause for concern, said Jenny Vanden Eynden, chairwoman for Lakota District Parent Council.

“That gives me great pause, as a parent, as a citizen,” Vanden Eynden said. She said she wants schools to thoroughly investigate incidents before expelling students, but if a schoolchild turns violent, she argues they should be removed from school quickly.

“In the immediacy of it all, a child who starts a fight in the middle of the hallway, you don’t put them in a timeout chair in a hallway,” she said.

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