Child advocates try to save a suspension law from a misinformation campaign
April 14, 2009
Michael Ben-Elohim, Jr. got a five-day suspension earlier this year for insubordination. His offense: He put his head down on his desk, ignored his teacher and refused to do his school work.
Michael spent the week at home with his mother, and his dad had to take one day off work to watch him. Michael is 7 years old, a second-grader at New Haven's Lincoln-Bassett School.
Michael's situation is strikingly common. Statewide, two-thirds of suspensions are for minor school policy violations like insubordination or disrespect. Scores of kids like Michael miss hundreds of school days for talking back to teachers, wearing a hat in the classroom or using an iPod.
Now a misinformation campaign about a 2007 law that would bar out-of-school suspensions for non-violent offenses threatens to undermine a school reform effort and create a lot more Michaels.
Educators and some lawmakers believe the law will force them to create costly in-school suspension programs to baby sit troubled kids. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), a powerful lobbying organization that represents all but a handful of towns in the state, put the legislation at the top of its "burdensome public policies" list for 2009.
CCM's Kachina Walsh-Weaver told the legislature's education committee that the law "requires schools to do in-school suspension." The law would "deplete already limited education funding" she said, adding that a delay would provide immediate savings.
That's not correct. Schools won't be required to use in-school suspension. They just can't use out-of-school suspension for minor violations like refusing to do their work.
But CCM claims the law is an unfunded mandate that could cost cities up to $4.5 million a year paying staff to supervise in-school suspension.
"We're certainly sympathetic to the ambitions of the law," Walsh-Weaver says in a phone conversation, "but municipalities are being squeezed on every side on every issue with these unfunded mandates."
The law was set to take effect last year, but it has already been delayed once and now could be put off until 2011 or 2012. A statewide coalition of child advocates is fighting to save the law by educating school officials and politicians about what it really means.
The law would require schools to reserve out-of-school suspension for students who pose a danger to others. Everyone else would have to remain in school and face other punishments, as decided by the district. That could range from the practically free — calling parents, suspending students from their sports teams, assigning them community service — to the more expensive, like Saturday detention.
At the time of its passing, even Gov. Jodi Rell agreed with the principal of the law:
"Students should be removed from the school setting only under the most exceptional circumstances," the governor said, adding that suspensions lead to delinquent behavior and students falling behind on school work. Rell called it "a recipe for failure." Now she's changed her mind and wants to repeal or delay the law.
"Schools think it's about moving their whole out-of-school suspension population to in-school suspension," says Taby Ali, a policy analyst with Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based advocacy and research group. "And that's just not true."
What's more, the law would only affect schools using out-of-school suspension for non-violent behavior. Kids who posed a danger to others could still be sent home.
Connecticut's cities have the highest suspension rates in the state: In the 2007-08 school year, New Haven suspended 15 percent of its student body, while Bridgeport suspended 16 percent and Hartford suspended 21.
"There's no alternative practice now. It's suspend the kid and that's it," says Michael's father, Michael Ben-Elohim, Sr.
Ben-Elohim says his son is timid and emotional. "He might have a behavioral issue, but he's not disrupting the class or putting kids at risk. He didn't get into a fight, assault anybody or pull a fire alarm. He gets suspended for little things."