School suspensions bill advances

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RICHARD ALAN HANNON /
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge

A state House panel advanced a bill Wednesday that seeks to cut down on school suspensions and expulsions.

The legislation also attempts to get problem students back into classrooms after disciplinary interventions.

House Bill 646 sponsored by state Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, is partly based on the concept of “restorative justice.”

The approach encourages offenders to take responsibility for their actions, and to repair the harm they’ve caused others.

Smith, a former teacher and school board member, said her bill — the Safe and Successful Student Act — counters the “zero-tolerance” policy that some school districts have that calls for students to be suspended for incessant tardiness and other minor infractions.

She said the bill gives educators more flexibility to design disciplinary measures such as in-school interventions and detentions that keep students engaged and on the premises rather than out of school.

Under the law, teachers would retain the right to remove troublemakers from their classrooms at any time. Principals, Smith said, would have the discretion to look at an intervention rather than the current standard of automatic suspension or expulsion.

Smith said her bill is about “suggestions, not requirements” to school leaders. Multiple stakeholders spoke in favor of the legislation saying the bill could go a long way to help troublemakers, bullies, their victims and bullying bystanders, all of whom can suffer from poor academic performance and low self-esteem.

But Roy McCoy, principal of Beekman Junior High School in Morehouse Parish, said the bill would give Louisiana “the most lenient discipline laws in the U.S.”

He argued that the bill will create a situation where problem students are repeatedly allowed to return to class and continue their disruptive behavior.

McCoy said both his junior high and high school years were unpleasant because of bullying. He asked the state House Education Committee to kill the bill.

McCoy told the committee stories of a teacher who was slapped by a student and another case where a student kicked a pregnant teacher in the stomach. McCoy said he’s related to both teachers.

“I’m here today to be an advocate for teachers who work hard, but can’t teach because students are being returned to the classroom,” McCoy said. “Ask the teacher’s aide in Caddo Parish whose hair was set on fire.”

He compared the bill to “slapping a pair of handcuffs” on principals.

Despite his objections, HB664 advanced out of the state House Education Committee without objection. It heads to the House for further consideration.