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New laws tighten school suspension practices

Jeremy Lazarus | 9/6/2018, 6 a.m.
Ahead of the start of the new school year, new policies have been in place to reduce long-term suspensions of ...

Ahead of the start of the new school year, new policies have been in place to reduce long-term suspensions of misbehaving students across the state.

The key changes that the General Assembly approved and that Gov. Ralph S. Northam signed into law include:

• Limiting suspensions of children in pre-kindergarten to third grade to no more than three days and barring expulsion of those students from public schools.

• Limiting long-term suspensions of older students to no more than 45 days.

What impact the new laws will have remains uncertain, particularly as both include major loopholes that allow school officials to impose far longer suspensions.

Longer suspensions can be imposed on young pupils as well as older students if the alleged offenses involve weapons possession, drugs, violence against another person or a credible threat of violence or yet-to-be defined aggravated circumstances, the bills state.

State Sen. William M. Stanley Jr., R-Franklin, championed the legislation affecting young students, while Delegate Jeff M. Bourne, a Richmond Democrat, led the charge to limit the time for long-term suspensions of older students.

Both lawmakers expressed concern about the disruption of education that suspensions can cause.

The two legislators appeared to be making an effort to address issues spotlighted by the Legal Aid Justice Center in a report and later update titled “Suspended Progress” that are based on state data on public school discipline.

However, Delegate Bourne’s legislation does not address short-term suspensions of 10 days or less that affect most students who are disciplined and largely involve minor offenses such as cell phone possession or disrespect, according the Legal Aid Justice Center’s findings.

The 2017 report found that Virginia public schools during the 2015-16 school year issued an estimated 127,255 short-term disciplinary suspensions of 10 days or less to about 70,000 individual students. In other words, some students were suspended short-term more than once.

The Bourne legislation mostly addresses the 3,000 students who received long-term suspensions, according to the report, meaning they were barred from schools for at least 11 days and at most for up to a year. However, the “Suspended Progress” report did not offer any data on the average number of days that students were suspended. Statewide, 282 students were expelled for a year, the report found.

The report spotlighted the discipline imposed on young children in finding that Virginia schools issued “more than 17,300 short-term suspensions and at least 93 long-term suspensions just to children in pre-K through third grade.”

However, the report again did not include any data on the length of the short-term suspensions for young children.

The Legal Aid Justice Center report also raised concern that suspension rates for African-American students and for students with disabilities continue to be far higher than for any other groups of children.