Reducing School Suspensions Through Legislation

By Vicki Nishioka and Mark McKechnie
March 2015

In 2013, the Oregon Legislature made substantial changes to state school discipline statutes that guide the policies of the state’s 196 districts.The legislation, HB 2192, was the result of work by advocates, parents, community organizations, and school district stakeholders. HB 2192 made specific changes to remove zero tolerance policies from Oregon statutes and shifted the emphasis of school discipline from exclusion to inclusion, and from punishment to education.

But, there was still more work to be done. In 2013–14, nearly 8,000 K-5 students were suspended or expelled from school in Oregon. More than 70 percent of suspensions in elementary grades are for “disruptive behavior.”

Youth, Rights & Justice worked with many of the same groups, as well as the Oregon Department of Education’s School Discipline Advisory Committee to develop SB 553 for the 2015 legislative session. It will prohibit most suspensions and expulsions in grades K–5, but it makes exceptions for incidents in which a student causes serious physical injury to students or staff through non-accidental conduct, a student’s conduct poses a direct threat to the health or safety of students or school employees, or when required by federal law. The bill was passed by the Oregon Senate by a vote of 27–3, and by the House with a vote of 40–19.

Elementary school is a time when students learn the core skills that form the foundation for all future learning. These include reading, writing, math, and social-emotional learning skills. Students who miss school due to exclusionary discipline may have deficits in these skills that are hard to regain. Rather than fixing behavioral problems, suspension and expulsion are more likely to exacerbate underlying academic challenges, including social-emotional and other problems, leading to a vicious cycle that too often ends in failure and dropout.

Vast research and an emerging national consensus recognize that school exclusion policies often do more harm than good. Not only do these practices fail to make schools safer, but they also lead to academic failure, disengagement, dropout, and criminal justice involvement. You may have heard this referred to by researchers and policy analysts as the School-to-Prison Pipeline–a reflection of the fact many youth involved with the juvenile and criminal justice systems have experienced high rates of school exclusion.

Schools that have lower suspension rates and, in turn, higher academic rates, share common characteristics, including positive teacher-student relationships, high expectations of students, and well organized routines. The schools also provide professional development and technical assistance opportunities to teachers.

Suspensions can negatively affect all students in a school, not just students being disciplined. A November 2014 study found that “high levels of out of-school suspension in a school over time are associated with declining academic achievement among nonsuspended students,” even after adjusting for the levels of problem behaviors at the various schools. Thus, the argument that suspension is necessary to remove disruptive students so that other students can learn does not turn out to be true in many instances. Positive and restorative approaches to discipline, therefore, are more likely to benefit both students with behavioral problems and their peers.

Oregon’s rate of suspensions in elementary grades has been about 2.3 percent, just below the national average, but rates for a few individual districts have exceeded 8 percent. The data for students of color, students with disabilities and other marginalized or vulnerable groups are far more troubling.

Building upon the previous legislation, HB 553 is aimed at reducing disparities and exclusion levels overall in elementary grades. Racial disparities in discipline stem from differential treatment of students of color for minor and subjective infractions. Numerous studies have established that children’s behavior does not vary significantly based upon race. Rather, disparities in discipline result from different responses to the same behaviors.

By setting the bar for suspension and expulsion much higher in grades K–5, the goal is to keep more children in school, provide them the support and instruction they need, and narrow the persistent gaps in achievement based upon race, disability, and other factors that have plagued education systems in Oregon, just as they have across the United States.