Article 13 of Oklahoma’s Constitution begins: “The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.” That commitment to educate all of the children in our state is prominent in our founding document. Yet in the face of shrinking resources for schools, higher class sizes and more inexperienced teachers, some Oklahoma lawmakers are proposing we go in the opposite direction. To establish better control over classrooms, Senate Bill 81 by Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, proposes to suspend more kids — effectively giving up on Oklahoma’s obligation to provide them with an education.
The bill, which passed the Senate and now awaits a hearing in the House, would extend the law allowing out-of-school suspensions from sixth grade and up all the way down to third-graders. Kids as young as 8 or 9 years old would face out-of-school suspension for two semesters if they are “found to have assaulted, attempted to cause physical bodily injury, or acted in a manner that could reasonably cause bodily injury” to a school employee or volunteer. Some opportunities for appeal are provided in the law, but the default punishment would be suspension, whether or not actual harm to a school employee occurred.
Expanding suspensions is a solution proven to fail. Numerous studies have found that detentions, suspension, and expulsion do not curb violent or disruptive behavior. In fact, highly punitive approaches to school discipline are shown to increase problem behaviors like rebellion against teachers, vandalism, absenteeism and truancy. Kids who act out violently are suffering from serious emotional and behavioral problems that also make them the least likely to be deterred by a harsh punishment.
SB 81 goes against efforts to reduce suspensions in Oklahoma and across the U.S. Last year, Oklahoma City Public Schools settled with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights over the district’s extremely high suspension rates of black students. The district has adopted a new school discipline plan that provides a 10-day remedial program as an alternative to suspension.
Other states are going even further. A 2014 law in California banned suspensions for “willful defiance,” and schools across the state have successfully focused on reducing suspensions and seen higher academic achievement as a result.
SB 81 does include language directing schools to require suspended students to complete an intervention program or meet with a mental health care provider. The problem is that while SB 81 calls for these interventions, it does nothing to fund them. Meanwhile, it does far more damage by taking kids out of school where they are most likely to receive needed care.
Oklahoma’s obligation is to help students with serious mental health and behavior problems while they are in school. That requires commitment from lawmakers to fund the programs that work, leadership from administrators to guide school discipline policies in a constructive direction, and daily courage by teachers, counselors and other school staff to reach the kids who need it most.
It may not be easy, but it’s a promise we made in our state Constitution. Let’s fulfill that promise instead of giving up on kids.
Gene Perry is policy director of Oklahoma Policy Institute (www.okpolicy.org).