A bill aimed at reducing out-of-school suspensions in Louisiana will get its first hearing at the Legislature on Wednesday. It would require any local school district or charter school that suspends students at particularly high rates to come up with a plan for reforming its disciplinary practices.
The legislation, introduced by state Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, has the backing of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which argues that too many students in Louisiana public schools are missing classes for minor infractions.
Advocates for alternative approaches also point out that African-American students and students with disabilities tend to be suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates, contributing to what some refer to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Leger’s bill would establish a Commission on Safe Supportive Discipline, a 15-member body that would meet twice a year and get reports from the state Department of Education on the implementation of discipline plans at districts and schools that have been identified as having particularly high suspension rates.
At the end of the 2017-18 school year, the department would have to identify any local school district or independent charter school with a suspension rate 50 percent higher than the state average, either among the entire student population or among non-white or disabled students.
Those agencies would then have to draw up plans for cutting their suspension rates. If they can’t bring them down within two years, they would have to hire an outside consultant to help.
Among those planning to lobby for the bill are parents from New Orleans who say their children have been harmed by inflexible school policies. The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified 19 schools in New Orleans that would be required under the bill to come up with plans for cutting their suspension rates.
Crystal Walker said she has two boys, ages 8 and 11, who were suspended so often from the charter school they were attending that it became difficult for her to hold down a job or attend her own graduate school classes at Southern University. Her younger son, James, was suspended more than 40 days in the first grade, she said.
Now, both boys attend a program for special-needs students at a different charter school, and the suspensions have stopped. Walker wonders why the kind of practices her children enjoy now — talking through their feelings after temper tantrums, for instance — can’t be used more widely.
In a letter to lawmakers last year, Walker wrote that James “has become excited about school — so excited that he becomes upset if he believes he has missed the school bus.”
Barry Landry, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the agency’s board “generally likes this bill because it has good intentions, making sure schools use the sending of students home as a last resort.”