BY JOE DORMAN
With a $900 million budget shortfall dominating this year’s legislative session, many lawmakers are looking to balance the budget by cutting government spending. As advocates for children, our job at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy [OICA] is to shield Oklahoma’s youngest and most vulnerable residents from any “cost-cutting” measures that would adversely impact them and, in some cases, negatively change the trajectory of their entire lives.
One of those measures is SB 81, which seeks to lower the grade level at which a student can be suspended from school. Currently, out-of-school suspension is only allowable at the sixth grade level and above. SB 81 would allow children as early as third grade [only eight or nine years old] to be suspended. In addition, the bill would reduce the requirements for counseling programs available to these children, who are the ones who need it the most.
If you’re pinching pennies, this bill helps save money by kicking young kids out of class, reducing their services, and getting the state off-the-hook for paying to educate and counsel them.
If, however, you are trying to educate a generation of children to become productive adults, it undermines that goal in almost every way. In fact, in the long term, it will probably also cost the state more money, fueling the “school to prison pipeline,” as children who can’t make it in school turn to antisocial behavior and crime. It will also negatively impact children with special needs and children of color.
SB 81 allows children to be suspended from school and sent home for up to two semesters at a pivotal time in their education, when they need to be learning foundational skills that will have lifelong importance. The third grade has been documented as a pivotal school year for a child’s academic success or failure. This is the year children are required to pass the state mandated reading proficiency test. If the test is not passed, a student is required to repeat the third grade.
Suspending a child during or right before this critical year vastly undermines their chances to develop the skills they need to pass this test.
Furthermore, children forced out of school for disruptive behavior may be being sent back to the source of their stress, trauma, and unhappiness. Children who act out are often reacting to negative influences in their home environment. Stigmatized and failing academically, these children are far less likely to graduate high school, and high school dropouts are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers. Oklahoma voters just passed sweeping criminal justice reforms at the ballot box; this bill is likely to undermine the success of those changes.
Students with disabilities also have a lot to lose. These students are twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as non-disabled students, according to the data collected by the U.S. Department of Education. Children most vulnerable to suspension, those who act out and misbehave in class, often have learning disabilities and emotional or mental health needs. The only way to help these students prepare for an independent life is to provide them opportunities through education.
There are solutions to early behavioral issues that help children; suspension isn’t one of them. Please share that message with your legislator and ask them to vote “no” on SB 81.
– Joe Dorman is chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy