(Editor’s note: This story was authored by Jennifer Palmer of Oklahoma Watch and appears here in accordance with the non-profit journalism organization’s republishing terms.)
Students as young as pre-K can be, and are, suspended from Oklahoma schools for as long as the remainder of the school year for violating school rules.
A proposal working its way through the Legislature would expand suspension for elementary kids by mandating lengthy suspensions for students as young as third grade for assault or attempted assault against a teacher, school employee or volunteer. Currently, a default punishment of suspension for the rest of the semester and entire next semester starts in sixth grade.
In 2015, Oklahoma schools reported 96 suspensions of elementary-aged students for assaulting a teacher or staff member, state Education Department data shows. Of those, only two students were suspended for the remainder of the school year.
Elementary student assaults on teachers and staff
The number of reported assaults on teachers and staff by elementary students in Oklahoma schools:
Source: Oklahoma Department of Education
Professional Oklahoma Educators, an association for school personnel that requested SB 81, collected testimonials from a dozen unnamed teachers about their experiences with physical violence in the classroom. Those include a fourth-grade teacher in Guymon who placed herself between students involved in a violent altercation while she was pregnant, and an Okmulgee teacher who says she was punched in the face by a third-grader, resulting in a black eye and fractured cheekbone.
Think tank: SB 81 heads in wrong direction
Despite such incidents, increasing the number of young students suspended long-term takes Oklahoma in the wrong direction, said Gene Perry, policy director for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, an independent policy think tank.
“We should be investing what’s needed in our schools to actually control the classroom and to provide the services to these kids who are acting in ways that show they are struggling,” Perry said.
There are good practices and programs happening in Oklahoma and elsewhere that do that, he said. The Jenks Public Schools district, for example, opened cool-down rooms in its two largest elementary schools this year, where students struggling to cope can go to receive extra counseling outside of the classroom.
Unfortunately, funding for alternative education has been reduced, and some school districts have eliminated support staff positions, such as counselors.
The law does provide parents an opportunity to appeal a long suspension, but one problem is the default punishment is suspension whether or not a teacher was harmed, Perry said.
Often, students facing suspension are the ones with the most difficult issues at home, such as food insecurity. Those problems are likely to get worse if the student is removed from school, Perry said.
Another major issue with school suspensions is they are given disproportionately to students of color. Oklahoma City Public Schools is under federal oversight related to racial disparities in its student discipline. An audit by the school district, the state’s largest, found black students are two to three times more likely to be suspended than white students.
Suspensions also can have ripple effects. A 2014 study of 17,000 Kentucky students found that in schools with high suspension rates, there was a negative effect on the math and reading scores of students who hadn’t been suspended. Frequent suspensions impact a school’s culture, one of the researchers theorized, causing anxiety and disconnect among students.
‘We have to do something’
Sharp, a retired educator, agrees that suspension for elementary kids is not ideal and that children are better served by alternatives. But, he says, schools’ options are limited right now.
“We cannot have that child with anger-management issues in the classroom bodily assaulting a teacher or a teacher’s aide. We have to do something to address this,” he said.
Other incidents reported by Professional Oklahoma Educators were a special-education student kicking the knee of a Bridge Creek teacher, who required surgery, and a teacher in Western Heights school district who was “bit, kicked and punched by 4-year-olds to the point of bruises all over.”
Sharp, who was elected in 2012, has regularly filed bills focused on school discipline. In 2016, a bill to allow schools to implement “reverse suspension” was signed into law, giving school districts the option to have a student perform “campus site service” in exchange for suspension.
In 2014, Sharp proposed a bill to protect school districts from civil lawsuits arising from their use of corporal punishment, or paddling, a form of discipline banned in most U.S. states. The bill failed.
The Senate approved SB 81 on March 20 by a 38-7 vote; the bill is awaiting action by the House Common Education Committee.