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Legislators seek alternatives to school suspensions

The Journal Record

September 13, 2018

OKLAHOMA CITY – Some of Oklahoma’s top mental health and juvenile justice officials are helping lawmakers as they call for the state to reconsider its use of out-of-school suspension, especially among young students.

There has been a push in the Legislature to require schools to consider alternatives to suspension or to mandate an appeals process for children who get suspended. Their argument has many factors, such as statistics showing that suspension increases dropout rates and that students who get suspended tend to suffer childhood trauma.

The Oklahoma Senate’s Education Committee held an interim study on Thursday to hear reform supporters testify about why changes could be necessary and how those changes could be implemented. State Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman, D-Tulsa, requested the study. She said during the hearing that a bill’s failure during the legislative session spurred the idea.

Senate Bill 1435 would have amended current laws on suspension, adding a provision that allows districts to offer alternative disciplinary actions, which could include requiring parents to shadow their children in class or requiring a student to undergo counseling. A provider contracted with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services would be allowed to deliver that counseling. The bill died in the House of Representatives after it passed out of committee and no further hearings were scheduled.

Melissa White is an Office of Juvenile Affairs official who oversees the Oklahoma Youth Academy Charter Schools, a program that serves at-risk students. She said studies indicate that suspension increases dropout rates because many high school students never return after their suspension ends, and that many youthful offenders commit crimes while out of school. It also puts them at an academic disadvantage, she said, even though state law requires schools to send children home with educational plans and materials.

“A lot of times, these students are the students that are underperforming,” she said. “These kids fall further and further and further behind.”

Several speakers focused on why they believe officials should focus more on prevention and treatment than they should on punishment.

Jessica Hawkins is the senior director of prevention services at the department of mental health. She said that one in five children face mental, emotional or behavioral disorders, making them more common among children than broken bones. It’s typical for adults to delay action until a disorder develops, but indications generally precede disorder development by two to four years.

“We don’t talk about how there are key windows in a child’s development,” she said.

Jackie Shipp, the director of treatment for the same agency, said that even after a disorder is developed and diagnosed, children have several opportunities for treatment instead of facing suspension.

“There are interventions in every state that work,” she said. “School-based interventions definitely are going to be able to mitigate.”

State Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, authored the bill that inspired the hearing. Although he supported allowing districts to implement alternatives, he said he still supported suspension in cases where students pose a threat.

Sharp spent decades as a schoolteacher, and he said teachers today are seeing students exhibit aggressive behavior at a significantly younger age than they did during his time in the classroom. He said school officials have to consider whether students in question are capable of harming their teachers, and if they are, what effect that might have on their classmates.

“Other students are being victimized by seeing the aggressive behavior of this child in the classroom,” he said.

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