A bill signed into law this month by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is aimed at breaking up the so-called school to prison pipeline by encouraging administrators to find discipline alternatives to student suspensions.
The legislation was introduced by Loudoun state Sen. Jennifer Wexton (D-33). Senate Bill 829 directs the state Board of Education to establish guidelines for alternatives to short-term and long-term suspension for local school boards to consider.
The latter bill states alternatives “may include positive behavior incentives, mediation, peer-to-peer counseling, community service, and other intervention alternatives.” Taking kids out of school, Wexton said, only makes it harder for them to catch back up to their peers.
“Those often are the kids who need the structure of being in the school setting, who once they fall behind, it’s that much harder for them to catch up,” she said.
In many cases, those students are out of school for several days and return to school without any remediation, she added. “And it creates that cycle of isolation and failure for these kids.”
Virginia’s school suspension rate is one of the highest in the nation, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center. Wexton said, as she and her colleagues in the General Assembly began to investigate why that is, they found that, in most cases, school systems didn’t have the tools they needed to implement alternatives to suspending students. “So, when they were faced with problems with kids, their solution was to remove the child who was in their mind causing the problem. Ultimately, that’s not helpful,” she said.
“We don’t want to mandate it or try to apply a one-size-fits-all solution throughout the commonwealth because we understand that every local school system is different,” Wexton added. “But we want to provide the tools and resources to do this themselves.”
The Board of Education will work with individual school systems to help them train administrators and teachers to establish programs like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Positive Experiences in Educational Relationships (PEER).
Loudoun County Public Schools has both PBIS and PEER and has been making a concerted effort to bring down its suspension rates in the past several years. Loudoun School Board members have credited the programs to contributing to a five-year decline in total suspensions and expulsions even as enrollment has increased.
Now, their focus is on reducing the rate of suspensions among minority students and students with disabilities, which haven’t budged. Their most recent reports show that Loudoun’s black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities are disproportionality suspended and expelled, which is also a problem at the state level and nationally.