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Suspension-Limiting Bill Aims To Keep Students In School

A new bill would drastically limit the number of out-of-school suspensions given to students in grades K-5. In this photo, Gov. Tom Wolf visits Ferguson K-8 in York, Pa. as part of his Schools that Teach tour.

Misbehaving students in Kindergarten through fifth grade would no longer be given out-of-school suspensions under a measure introduced in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

House Bill 715would require districts to find alternative disciplinary methods for elementary students for anything other than offenses that put the health of students or teachers at risk.

“There are other ways to deal with this,” said Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny), the bill’s co-sponsor. “Restorative practices ways to deal with this in a way that is fair to the student, helps the student academically, and, in the long term, is a better process to control behavior and improve behavior.”

Pittsburgh Public Schools has been accused by education advocacy groups of using out-of-school suspensions too frequently -- handing out more than 8,000 during the 2015-16 academic year.

In its 2016-17 student conduct manual, PPS has three levels of misbehavior and accompanying “recommended disciplinary action.” The guidance does not specify interventions by grade level.

Wheatley said, while out-of-school suspensions are the focus of the bill, he doesn’t want in-school suspensions to be an option for young students, either.

“We wouldn’t allow for just the old in-school suspension, where you would just house kids in a classroom,” he said. “We would actually try to give districts guidelines and guiding principals around what alternative pathways can be and what they could look like.”

Wheatley said the state would not mandate how the districts deal with the students, but it would offer suggestions and support. The measure does not detail how that support would be delivered. Wheatley suggested that it could come in the form of consultations or descriptions of best practices. The bill does not contain any funding for those services, nor does it specify who would provide them.

“We think it’s incumbent upon the professionals in the school to figure out ways to correct behavior, but also deal with those children in a way that helps them academically achieve, rather than just displace them,” Wheatley said.

The bill has not yet been called in the Republican-controlled Education Committee. All but one of the co-signers are Democrats.

Wheatley said a more wide-ranging school discipline bill, that also addresses out-of-school suspensions, is being circulated among Republicans. He said he suspects that measure would be considered before his bill is called for a committee vote.