Sparked by the suspension of a nine-year-old in Jefferson Parish, the Louisiana House on Tuesday easily approved a bill that would expand the rights of students who are punished by school officials.
The vote was 96-0.
The measure, House Bill 83, next faces action in the Senate.
The bill would widen the appeal rights of students and their families in the case of school discipline. It would allow students to appeal suspensions, not just expulsions, to the school board and to district trial court in cases where the original punishment was expulsion.
The plan would also require all 69 school districts statewide to overhaul their discipline policies to account for the explosion of distance learning amid the pandemic.
State Rep. Troy Romero, R-Jennings, sponsor of HB83, said lawmakers "need to step in and try to determine the difference between education in a school environment and education virtually, maybe at home."
"That is what this bill attempts to do," Romero told the House.
The legislation stems from the highly-publicized case of Ka'Mauri Harrison, 9, who was suspended in September after he moved a Daisy BB gun out of the way of his younger brother while Ka'Mauri was taking an online test at his home.
Jefferson Parish school officials first said Ka'Mauri, of Harvey, would be expelled because his teacher said he handled a "full size rifle" that was visible to her on his computer and that, as an extension of the school campus, it ran afoul of school rules on guns.
The punishment was later trimmed to a six-day suspension.
The case sparked attention nationwide, and both Ka'Mauri and his father Nyron Harrison appeared before the House Education Committee last week when the bill was considered.
Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, said the case helped bring to light 12 other similar episodes, including four in Louisiana.
"This law will allow for a second level of review of this case and other cases like it," Freeman said. "I don't think it is fair to a fourth-grade child to have a record for a weapons charge that will follow him for the rest of his life."
Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, labeled the original incident "egregious" in how it was handled by school leaders.
"It seems like common sense was lacking from this entire situation," Carter said.
Officials of the Jefferson Parish School District have declined comment in recent days because of a pending lawsuit.
Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, said the legislation represents a rare example of bipartisanship.
Edmonds, a member of the House Education Committee, said every member of the panel signed on as co-authors after last week's three-hour hearing.
"They saw something and felt something in their heart that you don't always get to feel," he said. "And we can feel good that we as Louisiana legislators got it right."
Public schools across the state have relied on distance learning since mid-March, during the early stages of the pandemic.
Most schools began the 2020-21 school year with a combination of in-person and virtual classes, and lots of districts have kept that schedule even though restrictions have been eased.
After the incident won attention a wide range of groups, including the National Rifle Association, voiced support for the Harrison family.
The case sparked rare unity among advocates of gun rights with those who, while concerned about weapons around schools, viewed the reaction as overly harsh to a fourth-grader.
Romero said: "We need to have policy changes for virtual learning that sets it out in the open, so people know what they can and can't do."
The bill would allow the families of students to collect reasonable attorney fees if the court concludes school officials acted in a "grossly negligent" manner with deliberate disregard for the consequences. It requires school boards to come up policies that spell out the rules for virtual learning, what is expected of students and parents and consequences for violating the rules.