GOP panel kills landmark attempt at school discipline reform

Students line up in the hallway at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Students line up in the hallway at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)
Students line up in the hallway at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Nicholas Garcia on April 17, 2017

A bipartisan attempt to reform how Colorado schools discipline their youngest students died Monday, even after the bill’s sponsors offered amendments to placate rural school leaders who opposed the legislation.

The Republican-controlled State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted 3-2 along party lines to kill House Bill 1210.

Two Republicans who voted against the measure said they felt the bill stripped away crucial tools teachers and principals need to manage their classroom.

“Our teachers need the tools,” said state Sen. Vicki Marble, a Fort Collins Republican. “I would say give them a bar of soap and let them use it when they need it.”

The bill would have allowed schools to expel and suspend students if they posed a physical threat to themselves or others.

A third Colorado Springs Republican, state Sen. Owen Hill, said he felt the bill was an overreach by state lawmakers.

Sponsors and proponents of the bill said they were disappointed but vowed to bring the legislation back next year.

“New ideas don’t always make it the first try, or even the second or third try,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate. “But what it does is it creates thought and discussion. Sometimes it takes your colleagues time to see the light.”

Rosemarie Allen, an assistant professor of early childhood education at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said after the vote that it appeared Republicans were more concerned about politics than doing what’s right for kids.

“I’m losing faith in the common sense of our legislature,” she said. “We’re not done yet. We will never, ever give up on our children.”

What the bill did:

The original bill would have curbed out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would have permitted out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

In general, suspensions would have been limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.

Proponents of the bill spent more than a year crafting it. They say there are too many students in those early grades being suspended out of school, and that the tactic doesn’t work.

Last year, Colorado schools suspended students in grades below the third grade more than 7,000 times. Boys, especially black and Latino boys, were overrepresented in that group.

“The practice has shown repeatedly to make the problem worse,” said Phillip Strain, an early childhood education professor at the University of Colorado Denver. “Suspension and expulsion occurs at a local school level, but there is an economic ripple effect across the state and across the country.”

Unexpected roadblock:

The bill hit an unexpected late roadblock when rural school leaders voiced opposition to the bill.

On Monday, two rural superintendents said that the bill violated their local control and that more mental health resources for students was a better solution.

“I think what it comes down for me, more than anything, is that we have continually eroded away local control and the authority of our local school boards to make the decisions they need to make,” said Rob Sanders, superintendent of the Buffalo School District in Merino.

Rural superintendents also have claimed that early childhood suspensions are a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat story last week, however, reported that rural school districts also suspended boys — especially black and multiracial boys — disproportionately.

Sanders and another superintendent who testified Monday — Grant Schmidt of the Hanover district — took issue with how the state calculated the data cited in the story, saying it does not give a fair picture because of the relatively small numbers of students impacted.

In an effort to win over support from lawmakers sympathetic to the rural concerns, the bill’s sponsors offered three amendments that substantially weakened the bill.

The first made the bill only about suspensions, allowing for use of expulsions. The second amendment limited the bill to pre-school through the first grade. And the third amendment exempted rural schools from the law altogether.

All three amendments were unanimously approved. Then the Republicans killed the bill.

“We’re going to bring it back until we get those done. It needs to be done,” said Rep. Susan Lontine, a Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House. “When the reasons for not voting for the bill were taken off the table by those amendments that they all agreed to, and they still used them for reasons to vote against the bill … It doesn’t make sense.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.