Our Turn: State’s school discipline system is in need of reform

Published: 2/12/2019 12:20:11 AM

When we think about New Hampshire’s future, a top priority for all citizens should be ensuring that we have an education system that works for every student. But educational opportunities are not equally distributed among all our state’s communities, meaning that some children are struggling because they are not given a fair chance to do well.

One way this is evident is when children of color, children with disabilities, and children with behavioral health issues get suspended or expelled from school at higher rates than their peers. Taking kids out of the classroom is an extreme consequence for minor infractions like foul language or truancy. Exclusionary discipline puts these kids at risk for falling behind academically, dropping out of school and coming into contact with the juvenile justice system.

Students have a constitutional right to an adequate education in our state, and a school discipline system that is not transparent, not consistent and offers no sound alternatives should not undermine that basic right. Reversing the authority of school districts to exclude children for minor, correctable infractions requires a legislative fix, which is proposed by this session’s House Bill 677, relative to discipline of students, addressing students’ behavioral needs and making an appropriation therefore.

“Keeping Kids in School: The Urgent Need for Reform of School Discipline In New Hampshire,” a report released this month by the Juvenile Reform Project, describes the alarming connection between exclusionary discipline in New Hampshire schools and the school-to-prison pipeline. Our state’s lack of standards for exclusionary discipline gives schools unlimited authority to impose out-of-school suspensions for any violation of school rules. Local districts can avoid reporting lengthy exclusions of kids from the classroom as “suspensions” as long as they have a definite end date, no matter how far that is in the future.

“Keeping Kids in School” provides an overview of a system that more often than not punishes children who are disadvantaged to begin with. The report is the follow up to a 2016 issue brief from the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH, which analyzed how out-of-school suspensions disproportionately affect low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities. After the Carsey brief was released, N.H. Legal Assistance looked at the most recent N.H. data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and found similar disparities. For example, while students of color made up 13.9 percent of the school population, they received 22.7 percent of the suspensions. Students with disabilities were 20.3 percent of the population but comprised 38 percent of the suspensions. The data are even more starkly discriminatory and concerning when the combination of race and disability is analyzed.

We know that classroom teachers are challenged every day by having to balance some students’ behavioral health needs with the academic needs of all the kids in their care, and we want to make their jobs easier, not harder. To that end, the report suggests expanding and promoting a prevention framework for alternative behavior management practices. This system of supports for behavioral health and wellness has been proven to be successful in many N.H. schools, where evidence shows it results in reduced exclusionary discipline, while enhancing behavioral health, attendance, academic achievement and school climate. The framework is a critical component in the “system of care” for providing publicly funded behavioral health services to children and youth in an integrated way, and it is recommended both in the new Ten-Year Mental Health Plan and by the Governor’s School Safety Preparedness Task Force.

This legislative session, lawmakers have the opportunity to amend the laws on suspension and expulsion, promote a common-sense approach to school discipline, and utilize evidence-based practices to deal with the social, emotional and behavioral health needs of children. When problems are addressed proactively or prevented entirely, our schools are safer for all children. “Keeping Kids in School” should, in fact, be the catch phrase for policymakers at the State House this year as they consider the ever-increasing costs of mental health care and correctional facilities in New Hampshire.

Acting proactively now by enacting HB 677 will help break the cycle of failure and social disengagement for at-risk kids and benefit us all.

(Michelle Wangerin is the youth law project director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance. Becky Whitley is policy director for the N.H. Children’s Behavioral Health Collaborative. They are members of the Juvenile Reform Project, a 5-year-old advocacy group that also includes the ACLU of N.H., the Disability Rights Center – N.H. and Waypoint.)




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