Bill offers alternatives to school suspensions

  • State Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman, D-Sand Springs, has introduced a Bill dealing with school suspensions.

State Sen. Allison Ikley-Freeman, D-Sand Springs, has introduced Senate Bill 1367 dealing with school suspensions, one of the more vexing issues facing education in Oklahoma.

Most educators will tell you suspension doesn’t work for the children. They act out, get suspended then return to school, behind in their work and either embarrassed or pleased by their suspension. Often nothing is offered to the child during suspension but days off from school. Suspension becomes a feeder for the criminal justice system.

According to the Capacity Building Center for States, “No evidence exists that expulsion and suspension are effective responses to children’s behavior. Instead, expulsion early in a child’s education is associated with expulsion in later school grades. Young students who are expelled are 10 times more likely to drop out in high school, experience academic failure, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not.”

Educators are in it to help children succeed and are empathetic by nature. But it doesn’t take long in a discussion with teachers to hear horror stories about children who have insulted, cursed, and even assaulted them. Teachers and students want to teach and learn in a reasonably controlled, safe environment.

When a teacher, school employee, or another student is victimized, there is a call to “do something.” At some point, out-of-school suspension became the go-to response for both policymakers and administrators when children act out. It is cheap, easy to administer, and satisfies the urge to punish bad behavior.

Sen. Ikley-Freeman’s SB 1367 is a thoughtful response to excessive out-of-school suspensions. The bill would repeal mandatory suspension for school assaults and make them discretionary with the district.

It provides that schools shall consider restorative practices for discipline as an alternative or in addition to suspension. Restorative justice focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment. Offenders accept responsibility for harm and make restitution with victims.

In California, Oakland Unified School District began using the program at a failing middle school in 2006. Within three years, the pilot school saw a decrease in suspensions by an enormous 87%, with a corresponding decrease in violence, and restorative practices became the new model in the district for handling disciplinary problems.

SB 1367, properly implemented, would require more time and personnel by schools and cost more money than the simple response of suspension, but it would change lives. Good school discipline is at the top of almost every teacher’s wish list. If we are serious about keeping teachers in the classroom and having a “top 10” system of public education, Senator Ikley-Freeman’s proposal should be given serious consideration and implemented.

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1989-90. He was the principal author of House Bill 1017, the historic education reform and revenue measure adopted and signed into law in 1990. Lewis practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the State Capitol.