Ohio schools could no longer impose out-of-school suspensions for young students who commit minor offenses under a bill that unanimously passed the Senate on Wednesday.
Ohio elementary schools have handed out an average of 35,000 out-of-school suspensions over each of the past two years. Almost half were for disruptive or disobedient behavior, nearly two-thirds were black children, and 90 percent were from low-income households.
“In recent years, the number of young children being suspended or expelled in Ohio schools has skyrocketed,” said Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, a lead bill sponsor. “The evidence is overwhelming — exclusionary discipline policies do nothing to improve school culture or student behavior.”
The concern is that suspensions pile punishment onto youths acting out in the classroom often as a result of trauma experienced at home from neglect, physical abuse or stress from poverty.
“The new goal should be to manage students’ behavior, not just punish,” said Eric Seeds, policy associate at Voices for Ohio’s Children. The bill “would help to create an environment where schools move away from punitive measures and toward addressing the underlying issues students face to succeed.”
Under Senate Bill 246, called the Supporting Alternatives for Education Act, or SAFE Act, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in grades pre-K through three are reserved for offenses where a child threatens the safety and well-being of other students or staff.
“We understand that schools must use all effective means at their disposal to maintain safety,” Lehner said. “But this notion must be balanced with an understanding of what children really need.”
The bill also allows a student to be expelled for one year for bringing a knife to school only if the knife is capable of causing serious bodily injury. This is aimed at zero-tolerance policies that, critics say, unfairly punish students who bring toys to school.
The prohibition against suspensions of young students would start in the 2020-21 school year.
In the meantime, districts would be expected to implement what’s known as Positive Behavior Intervention Systems. Teachers and staff are trained to develop classrooms that recognize social and emotional skills, such as the ability to get along with others, be attentive and not speak out at inappropriate times.
The bill includes $2 million to help schools get the program running.
Sen. Charleta B. Tavares, D-Columbus, who for years has advocated elimination of zero-tolerance policies, called the bill a good first step, but she said more is still needed for grades four and up.
“We can’t simply throw children out because they are crying out and we’re not listening,” she said, reminding colleagues about disparities along racial lines and for those with disabilities.
“They’re misbehaving for a reason, and we’re saying get them out of my school, get them out of my sight. We can’t afford that.”
The bill now goes to the House, which canceled session Wednesday because Republicans have not yet agreed on a new speaker.