Last year, more than 7,400 Louisiana public school students in kindergarten and first, second and third grades were handed out-of-school suspensions.
Senate President Pro Tem Sharon Broome, D-Baton Rouge, wants to all but ban the practice, which is sparking controversy.
“I am not trying to excuse bad behavior,” Broome said. “I think there should be consequences” for it.
“But when you are talking about those younger kids — 5, 6, 7 — I just think we ought to have a system that is able to deal with that particular age group and those lower grades,” she said.
However, officials of the Louisiana Association of Principals and the Louisiana School Boards Association have major reservations about the proposal, which is Senate Bill 54.
“We all agree that we need to do something to help deter out-of-school suspensions at the elementary level,” said Debra Schum, executive director of the principals group. “However, totally eliminating them I don’t think is the solution.”
Scott Richard, executive director of the LSBA, agreed.
“Anytime local flexibility is taken away from site-based administrators, it raises a red flag,” he said.
The volatile issue — the rate of suspensions by race is part of the debate — may get its first hearing this week in the state Senate Education Committee.
Under current rules, even the state’s youngest public school students can be tossed out of school for a wide range of offenses, including willful disobedience, intentional disrespect toward teachers and principals, profane language, carrying firearms, bullying or school disturbances.
Nearly as many students in the youngest grades — 6,880 — were subject to in-school suspensions last year.
“Louisiana has stern discipline laws compared to many other states,” according to a report prepared by state education officials in response to a resolution last year, sponsored by Broome, calling for a study of the issue.
The more than 7,400 students who faced out-of-school suspensions during the 2013-14 school year were mostly guilty of injurious conduct, willful disobedience and instigating fights, according to the state study.
Broome’s bill would ban out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through third grade unless they pose a threat to the safety or well-being of others. Instead, students would face loss of privileges, referral to a school counselor or social worker, or some other type of intervention.
“My bill focuses on trying to keep students in school in that age group, with perhaps some wraparound services,” Broome said.
But Schum and others said that, because of budget cuts in recent years, many school districts lack the counselors and other resources to help students who otherwise face suspension.
Some students may not pose a threat to others but are still disturbing their classes.
“And how do you work with that?” Schum asked. “I don’t see that in the bill.”
Those and other concerns were aired earlier this year when Broome met with representatives of superintendents, principals, school boards and other groups.
Richard said a program that rewards students for good behavior — considered effective in shaping the behavior of students in lower grades — is one of several that has “fallen by the wayside” in recent years.
The issue won attention in 2011 when the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice announced plans for an initiative aimed at balancing school discipline with keeping students in school.
The state report said that, while suspensions are highest in middle and high schools, the practice is also evident in elementary schools.
“The data also shows that African-American male students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than other student populations, a trend consistent with national statistics that not only exists in upper grade levels but also in grades prekindergarten through five,” according to the Louisiana study.
Doris Voitier, president of the Louisiana Association of Superintendents, said her group is reviewing Broome’s proposal.
Hollis Milton, superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish school system, said in an email that he opposes the measure.
“Schools typically suspend as a last option after all the other interventions have been exhausted,” he said. “This bill eliminates options to support our teachers’ right to teach and our students’ right to learn in a safe environment conducive to learning.”
Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.