Teachers and students don’t need out-of-school suspensions

Students of color and students with disabilities continue to be suspended at significantly higher rates than their peers. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights recently reported the astonishing data, confirming similar findings from the U.S. Government Accountability Office this past March.

Sadly, Colorado is no exception, particularly as it relates to its youngest learners. And that’s precisely why we need an alternative to House Bill 1210, which failed in the Senate committee last year. But we can’t afford to wait; we can start making a difference for students now.

I and many other teachers in Colorado face challenges with discipline issues in our own classrooms every day. Not long ago, I taught Aaron, a five-year-old kindergartener who loved big hugs and told me I was the best teacher ever. At various points in the school year, he also threw a scissors at another teacher’s face, knocked me over with a large box, bit another student on the head, and ran off school property at recess.

Aaron’s life had little consistency and a lot of trauma. Because of his extreme behavior, Aaron was suspended multiple times during the school year. I referred him through our school’s MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports), a prevention-based system of interventions to help students struggling behaviorally and academically. Despite meticulous data and documentation, the MTSS team told me they could not help Aaron because they had older students who were struggling even more. Eventually, the school placed Aaron in a self-contained special education classroom for students with severe aggression, even though he had not been qualified for special education services.

Suspending Aaron did not help address any of his behavior challenges but, at 5 years old, it did send him the message that he was neither wanted nor valued in school.  My other students learned that children like Aaron should be “kicked out” of the general education classroom, rather than learning how to work with and accept students with exceptional needs.

While the Colorado legislature considers its next move, there are actions we can take on the local level that address the different aspects of the issue.

Ensure quality preschool and early childhood programs.

Despite spending a year in preschool, Aaron came to kindergarten with no documentation about his behavioral challenges, though conversations with staff at his preschool indicated he struggled similarly then. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that students who attend a quality preschool program, especially those in poverty, show long-lasting positive effects on achievement, grade retention, special education, high school graduation, and socialization. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has attempted to define and describe “high quality,” and Colorado should model its programs on NAEYC’s recommendations.

Increase special education and mental health support.

Aaron was not able to receive support from our special education and mental health specialists because their caseloads were already at capacity. Our school had one special education teacher, one reading specialist and two paraprofessionals for all grades K-5. Our counselor and school psychologist served grades K-8. With caseloads that large, how can schools meet the needs of every student? The lack of support personnel means schools are resorting to discipline practices such as suspensions and expulsion because they are unable to offer students any other alternative.

Provide teacher training.

Aaron was put through the MTSS process because I had received training and support in how the process worked. Preliminary results from a Teach Plus survey of Colorado teachers indicate that although teachers are aware of the MTSS process in their buildings, they don’t feel supported in its implementation. Early grade teachers are the very first advocates for students and families. If teachers aren’t supported in consistent intervention and identification processes, both students and families suffer.

As teachers, families, school districts, and lawmakers, we need to realize students are not misbehaving in class because they want to.  There are underlying reasons for the behavior we need to identify and address; and suspensions and expulsions do not help us do so. Legislation like Colorado’s HB 1210 can help ensure school districts provide the resources teachers need to support students like Aaron and protect students’ rights to remain in the classroom. As Colorado continues to review early childhood best practices, we need to consider students like Aaron and the implications legislation like HB 1210 could have in protecting their rights.

Sarah Reed teaches English language development (ELD) and multicultural studies at Fountain Middle School and Welte Education Center in Fountain, Colorado.  She is a Teach Plus Colorado Teaching Policy Fellow.

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