Bills limiting suspensions for preschoolers, others advance in Va.

WASHINGTON – With thousands of kids in third grade or younger being suspended and even expelled each year across Virginia, the state’s House of Delegates on Friday advanced two bills that would restrict school suspensions in the state.

Del. Dickie Bell of Staunton, who introduced both bills, said a suspension or expulsion does not teach the right lesson, especially for such young students.

“If that’s the only tool in your tool box, you’re not going to fix very much,” he said.

Bell, speaking on the House floor, said there was more at stake.

“Besides being overused, misused and abused, suspension and expulsion overrepresent minorities and children with special needs,” Bell said. “It has become a way for schools to put these children out of the way. Out of sight, out of mind.”

One bill would bar any suspensions longer than five days for students in preschool through third grade, unless they have brought a gun or drugs to school property, or are found through the legal process to have committed a crime.

Fellow Republican Del. Greg Habeeb of Salem said he opposed the bill over concerns that the limited exceptions for longer suspensions were not enough.

“You could have literally — I know we’re talking about small kids — but you could have a 9-year-old who stabs his brother at home and pre-conviction,” Habeeb said. “The school cannot remove that child from the school environment.”

Habeeb continued: “I’m just not willing to take away the right of one of my school systems to remove a child who has proven to have violent tendencies and may have even committed violence against a classmate off school grounds.”

Bell said that those instances would be covered by criminal charges.

The second Bell bill that the House of Delegates advanced for a final vote would limit the length of long-term suspensions for older students. The bill has been narrowed in committee.

Bell said that, combined, the bills could help ensure students’ constitutional rights to a quality education.

“It doesn’t say just the best-behaved, or the smartest. It says for all children of school age throughout the commonwealth,” Bell said. “If a student is suspended long-term or expelled in a school division where there is no alternative program, I fail to see how that’s a high quality education.”

Today, the suspensions can be up to one year. The bill would cap suspensions at 45 school days unless the school principal or superintendent finds there are aggravating circumstances, as defined by a local school board. For suspensions up to the maximum of 90 days, the school system would be required to review the suspension after 45 days.

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