COLUMBUS - Ohio schools dole out up to 36,000 suspensions to elementary students each year – a number that stunned a Republican lawmaker into seeking a ban on many suspensions and expulsions.
One young boy cut the bread from his lunch into the shape of a gun. Another cocked his finger like a firearm, said Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who leads the education committee. Both boys were suspended.
"I was like, 'Are you sure about that?' " Lehner said. "It wasn’t for serious things like biting and tossing chairs. It wasn’t threatening-type behavior."
So Lehner wants to ban suspensions and expulsions for students in the third grade or younger – except for cases in which a student threatens to harm himself or his peers. But she faces opposition from teachers and school superintendents who would rather make those decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Lehner said a better alternative is training for teachers on how to de-escalate misbehavior. Students need more mental health counseling and more consistent discipline policies, she said. They might also benefit from in-school detentions rather than suspending or expelling them from class.
Ohio Department of Education officials warn that 36,000 number could include duplicates: A student could be suspended for fighting and disobedient behavior. That's one suspension for two reasons, but it might be filed separately under each category. That has led some school officials to question the statistics' validity. Still, more than 17,000 suspensions were issued for disruptive or disobedient behavior alone.
Locally, the number of suspensions and expulsions for young students varies drastically. Many Cincinnati-area school districts had zero suspensions or expulsions in the 2015-16 school year for kindergarten through third grade. Some had a few. Others had a ton.
North College Hill City Schools had 216, according to state data.
Cincinnati Public Schools had 306.
Mt. Healthy City Schools – larger than NCH but less than one-tenth the size of CPS – had 635.
That’s an unacceptable number, even if some of those are duplicate listings, said Mt. Healthy Superintendent Reva Cosby, but the district is aware of the issue and is working to correct it. Cosby is in her second year as Mt. Healthy superintendent. For too long, she said, suspension was a go-to punishment for the district rather than a last resort.
“We need to right that,” she said. “We need to have them in class, engage them in learning, and then, I believe, the discipline will go down.”
Local education officials agree with Lehner that early grade suspensions and expulsions should be rare. However, most are against a state-imposed ban, preferring instead to leave discipline policies up to each community.
"Students do need to be in school. We should not be pushing them out of school, particularly at those young grades," Cosby said. "But I don't think that we should take that option away. I think we are knowledgeable, and we should know when it rises to that level."
How common is this?
Statewide in the 2015-16 school year, there were 81 kindergarten suspensions for unwanted sexual conduct. There were 15 preschool suspensions for serious bodily injury and more than 2,000 kindergarten suspensions for fighting or violence. Those numbers are from a state database.
The most common category is a catch-all – more than 17,000 suspensions or expulsions in preschool through third grade for disobedient or disruptive behavior. But young students are also being kicked out of Ohio schools for harassment, theft, vandalism, tobacco use, false bomb threats and, ironically, truancy.
If Lehner’s ban passes, Ohio would become a leader in limiting suspensions and expulsions. Few other states – or even school districts – have tried to cull them in this way. In 2014, California eliminated “willful defiance” as a reason to expel students or suspend students younger than third grade.
Miami-Dade schools eliminated out-of-school suspensions in 2015, Seattle schools put a one-year moratorium on elementary school suspensions, and New York City schools are looking into reducing suspensions for students in second grade and below.
At North College Hill in Hamilton County, Superintendent Eugene Blalock vowed to do better. NCH is working on implementing the Positive Behavior Intervention System, he said, where, rather than punishing bad behavior, teachers focus on reinforcing good behavior.
Blalock wants to hone in on the why versus the what when it comes to misconduct.
“You have to look at more prevention,” he said.
CPS actually has a policy that prohibits suspension and expulsion through the third grade except in extreme cases where it’s required by law. So, district leaders were surprised by the number of early grade suspensions and expulsions in the state database.
School board president Ericka Copeland-Dansby said she’ll make an official school-board assignment to ensure the policy is being clearly communicated and followed at each CPS school.
District spokeswoman Janet Walsh said she and others are going through records, trying to find the discrepancy between their policy and the state numbers.
Perhaps it’s a coding issue, Walsh said, and the wrong data was submitted to the Ohio Department of Education. Perhaps that many young students really did present a danger to their classmates. Or, perhaps some principals weren't following the rule.
“We haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet,” Walsh said. “We need to.”
It’s a cycle
If a student is suspended, she goes home for a few days, comes back and is behind. That’s frustrating, and it could make her act out. So, she gets suspended again and goes home again – where her parents might not have a ready solution for daytime child care. She returns to school even further behind and more frustrated.
“If that continues to happen, that child will inevitably come to the conclusion that he or she does not belong there,” said Greg Landsman, a Cincinnati City Council candidate who, until recently, ran an education nonprofit.
“Dropping out becomes highly likely. And nobody wants that.”
Landsman doesn’t think age should play any part in suspension or expulsion policies, but schools should attack the root of the problem rather than the symptoms of misbehavior. That means having therapists, counselors and resource coordinators at the ready, he said. If schools do that when students are 5, 6 or 7 years old, they’ll have fewer problems when those same students are 15, 16 or 17.
Lehner’s proposal is still in the early stages. Ohio's Legislature is controlled by her party, but she hasn't pitched her plan to too many colleagues yet. She's seeking input from teachers and school officials first.
Any reforms that require more money for schools, such as more mental health counseling, could be folded into the state budget, which must pass and take effect by July 1. Still, the state budget is tight, so asking for extra money could be a hard sell.
Kicked out of school
An Ohio senator wants to make it more difficult to suspend or expel young students. Here's what they were kicked out for in the 2015-16 school year. Flip through the tabs to see suspensions/expulsions by grade.