Ohio Senator Charleta Tavares (D) has introduced Senate Bill 34 that would prohibit school boards from adopting Zero Tolerance policies that ultimately hamper the ability of school administrators and teachers from reaching at-risk children to address their needs on a case-by-case basis.  The adoption of zero tolerance policies often force the hand of school personnel to treat all children and all behavioral problems the same, effectively eliminating their ability to offer students an appropriate form of “due process” and alternate intervention strategies that seek to assist students who may be suffering from extreme behavioral issues.

In many cases, these students need greater care, stability, and support from the school environment instead of receiving a mandatory expulsion from the school, resulting in the onset of a vicious cycle where the student is punished twice — first through an expulsion, and second through the loss of any form of educational support during the forced time away from the school environment.

Senator Tavares provided outstanding testimony on this bill on March 17, expressing some outstanding key statistical points that further demonstrate how disciplinary incidents in Ohio also disproportionately affect Black students and students with disabilities – two of the key subgroups of students that schools are supposed to be supporting based on federal reporting of student achievement [emphasis-added]:

A disproportionate number of the total number of disciplinary incidents in Ohio public schools affected Black students and students with disabilities. Black students in Ohio public schools for the 2012-13 school year accounted for 52 percent of all suspensions and 53 percent of all expulsions, even though Black students comprise only 15.9 percent of students enrolled in Ohio schools. Students with disabilities account for 27.5 percent of all suspensions, but only 14.8 percent of total enrollment. Black students are over 6 times more likely to be suspended than white students, and students with disabilities are approximately twice as likely to be suspended. Students with emotional disturbance – a certain category of disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – however, are over six times more likely to be suspended. And if you put race and disability together, a Black student with emotional disturbance is 25 times more likely to be suspended than a White student with no disability.

Statistics that are as skewed as those listed above simply cannot be ignored by Ohio’s educators.  While this legislation addresses the concept of expulsion as an end result, educators and communities need to think deeply about these disproportionate numbers and take a step back to ask why those numbers are so high.  Whether it means that schools and communities need to band together to help challenged youth or whether individuals need to assess their own personal practices, the statistics above certainly illustrate the true notion of children who are being “left behind.”  The most basic reality of this situation is that teachers can’t teach and children can’t learn if they aren’t in the same place.

These statistics also help to point out that schools are much more than the “content factories” that our illustrious education reformers would lead you to believe.  Professional educators in our schools have the opportunity to be much more than deliverers of content knowledge and test proctors, if they are given the opportunity.

As Ohio legislators under the current Kasich Administration like to be followers of other states (Massachusetts was touted highly in Kasich’s first budget and during arguments in favor of the Common Core; Florida was the “model” for the Third Grade Reading Guarantee), Senator Tavares continued in her testimony to connect her proposal to both other states and key organizations that are leaders in child development:

Delaware, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Rhode Island are a few of the states who have enacted legislation to amend their zero tolerance policies in schools. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have issued statements effectively condemning zero tolerance policies, given their harmful effects and called instead for students to be disciplined on a case-by-case basis and in a developmentally appropriate manner.

Colorado is the latest state to reconsider its zero tolerance policies in school with the passage of HB 1345 in 2011. This bill encourages each school district to consider many specific factors before suspending or expelling a student and to utilize prevention, intervention, restorative justice, peer mediation, counseling, or other approaches to address student misconduct. Under SB 34, the only circumstances under which expulsion remains mandatory are those that involve a student who is found to have brought a firearm to school or possessed a firearm at school, in accordance with federal law, the Gun-Free School Act of 1994.

Note Senator Tavares’s emphasis in these two paragraphs.  She is not saying that there aren’t behaviors — such as possessing a firearm — that can be ignored and would require severe measures, the Senator is simply emphasizing that the educational experts running our schools should be permitted to discipline students “on a case-by-case basis and in a developmentally appropriate manner”.

Thoughtful legislation like this that empowers principals, teachers, counselors, and other key school personnel by allowing them to “take a holistic approach” when dealing with events involving individual children is something all educators need to get behind.

From a partisan political standpoint, the Republicans who hold the majority in the General Assembly along with Governor John Kasich, should be supporting this bill that provides more educational stability for students, a key factor in reducing the likelihood of a student dropping out of school — the key argument legislators and Kasich made for [wrongly] mandating retention as part of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee.

As Tavares pointed out in her testimony to the Senate Education Committee — zero tolerance policies adversely affect students who often need more school support, not less.  Passage of Senate Bill 34 will ensure that Ohio’s professional educators can work together to provide that extra support.  We encourage you to contact Senator Peggy Lehner, Senate Education Committee Chair, to push for more hearings on Senate Bill 34 and support its swift passage.

You can find Senator Tavares’s complete testimony here.