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School Suspensions Drop Before New Law Takes Effect

Grace E. Merritt

June 03, 2010

A report released Thursday shows that the number of student suspensions has declined statewide, even before a new state law takes effect this summer that aims to reduce out-of-school suspensions.

The percentage of students suspended from school dropped from 7.1 percent in 2006-07 to 5.4 percent in 2008-09, according to the report by Connecticut Voices for Children, a non-profit research organization. Some school systems, such as Bridgeport, showed vast reductions.

Experts believe the new state law limiting out-of-school suspensions, one of the first in the country, has made schools more aware of the disadvantages for students who miss school and prompted administrators to find other ways to discipline students and prevent bad behavior.

"The law started the conversation. The suspension rates have declined dramatically and schools are trying all these awesome things," said Alexandra Dufresne, a senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children and co-author of the report.

"The law brought to light all the research about the effect of out-of-school suspensions and districts have said, 'We can do better. We can solve this problem,'" she said.

The new law, which takes effect July 1, restricts out-of-school suspensions except in certain cases, such as when the student poses a danger to people or property, disrupts the educational process or has chronic disciplinary problems that have led to past suspensions.

Legislators passed the new law after hearing that Connecticut schoolchildren lost more than 250,000 school days due to suspensions in the 2006-07 school year. Kindergarteners, alone, lost 2,000 days the same year.

"The data that we saw was just shocking. I mean, kindergarteners getting out-of-school suspensions?" said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D- West Hartford, and co-chairman of the legislature's education committee.

"I talked to colleagues from some of these areas and found children were being sent home for minor infractions of the school uniform policy. The goal of the law is to correct students' behaviors while keeping kids in school."

Legislators and some education experts say that out-of-school suspensions don't work because the student often views the suspension as a "vacation," and the lost school time disrupts school work and contributes to the achievement gap, drop-out rates and juvenile delinquency.

The law originally passed in 2007 but was delayed twice due to concerns about cost. Some school superintendents worried that the law would force them to pay staff and dedicate a room in each school to punish students with "in-school" suspensions, instead.

The delay gave school systems time to examine their disciplinary habits and explore other ways of dealing with misbehaving students. Many have reported dramatic decreases, particularly in poorer urban areas.

Hartford's suspension rate declined from 19 percent to 15.7 percent during 2006-07 and 2008-09, while New Britain's sank from 17 percent to 11.3 percent.

The most dramatic change was in Bridgeport, which had the highest suspension rate in the state with 22 percent of students given suspensions in 2006-07. Three years later, the rate dropped to 13.9 percent.

John DiDonato, Bridgeport's assistant superintendent of youth development, explained that the school system achieved impressive behavioral and academic results by adopting "positive behavioral support" strategies designed to improve a school's climate and discipline by teaching behavioral expectations and using positive reinforcement.

"It's hard work and it's really a shift for some people to really believe in kids and the importance of adult actions," he said. "When you're in a school system that seems under siege, it's easy to forget. But the bottom line is: kids want to learn."

Many suburbs have begun to make changes as well. In West Hartford, the suspension rate dropped from 3.6 to 2.1 percent after elementary teachers incorporated lessons on cooperation, empathy and tolerance into the health curriculum, among other measures. At Conard High School, administrators meet with ninth graders during the first quarter of the school year to teach lessons about behavioral issues affecting the school.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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