While school suspension and expulsion is on the decline overall, the rates have spiked among Washington’s youngest students. One lawmaker wants to ban punitive discipline for kindergartners through second-graders.
Say the words “school discipline” and most people picture obstreperous teenagers who stand as tall as their teachers. But the fact is that suspensions are on the decline among older students while discipline of Washington’s youngest is surging.
Removing children as young as 5 or 6 from class for up to two weeks has become “shockingly common,” said Vanessa Hernandez, director of youth policy at the Washington office of the ACLU, who points to a 60 percent increase in suspensions of kindergartners through second-graders since 2013.
“It’s a tough practice to justify, kicking a little kid out of school,” she said. “It doesn’t teach them anything.”
Last school year, children younger than third grade were suspended 8,800 times statewide.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Those trends alarmed state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, enough so that he took a look at his own district and found numbers that were off the charts. As of February, there had been 775 incidents triggering suspensions from elementary classrooms during this school year — more than double the count for Spokane’s middle- and high schools.
“I was shocked when we got the numbers from Spokane,” Hernandez said. “We’re talking about 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds.”
Billig has introduced a bill that would ban suspensions lasting longer than a day and a half for children in second grade or younger — except in cases involving weapons — while encouraging greater emphasis on restorative practices that teach students how to repair damaged relationships, rather than merely sending them home.
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“Every principal and counselor I talk to says they want to do this, that it’s the right thing. But sometimes it helps to have a little nudge in the form of a law,” Billig said.
His proposed legislation, SB 5155, says kindergarten-though-second-grade students may not be removed from school longer than a day and a half (current law allows up to two weeks). It also would prohibit using suspension as a tool to punish young children. Instead, the brief time away must be devoted to meetings between parents, teachers and school leaders to create a plan for returning a child to class.
“For many of these children, the behavior that got them in trouble is a result of something going on at home, so leaving them there may only add to the problem,” Billig said. “On this, there is broad agreement, and in that sense we’ve come a long way.”
Several other states already have enacted similar laws. In 2014, California eliminated defiance as a reason for removing students in the third grade or younger. The following year Oregon banned all elementary-school suspensions except in cases that put safety at risk. In 2016, Connecticut did the same for preschool through second-graders. And an Ohio lawmaker is proposing something similar for her state.
Closer to home, Seattle declared a one-year moratorium in 2015 on most elementary-school suspensions, which has been continued.
Billig’s bill is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.