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VOL. 41 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 03, 2017
Task force now sought to study kindergarten suspensions
By Sam Stockard
State Rep. Raumesh Akbari is altering her strategy on legislation to reduce suspension of kindergartners, seeking a task force study on the matter rather than an immediate and outright ban.
Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, will seek an amendment to her legislation asking the Department of Education to find out how Tennessee school districts handle suspensions and expulsions of young students and require them to adopt new policies to reduce suspensions and expulsions for young students.
The study will take information from teachers, superintendents and criminal and juvenile justice experts to form recommendations for school systems to adopt “progressive” and “restorative justice” plans for children. The report could be done by 2018.
More than 1,000 of the state’s kindergarten population is receiving out-of-school suspension each year, about 1 percent, according to Akbari.
“I want that number to be zero,” says Akbari, who was to offer her amendment in a House Education subcommittee today.
Initially, Akbari’s bill would have prohibited suspension and expulsion of kindergartners unless they posed the threat of violence at school. She ran into opposition from school representatives who didn’t want to be limited if students continued to disrupt classes and other students, even though they weren’t violent.
Jim Wrye, a spokesman for the Tennessee Education Association, says he was caught off guard by the number of kindergarten suspensions reported statewide but felt a ban on suspensions would go too far.
“There’s obviously an issue,” Wrye says. “Our concern was tying the hands of an administrator when you have a kindergartner, a 5-year-old, using abusive and threatening language.”
In some of those cases, administrators felt they should be able to suspend or expel students to stop the behavior. But at the same time, he says, TEA wants to get at the root of the problem and use alternative methods to suspension.
“Let’s figure out why it’s happening. I was truly surprised there were 391 records of suspension in Shelby County, just very surprised, because we’re talking about 5-year-olds,” Wrye says. “I appreciate (Akbari) bringing that to the fore. I appreciate her passion about this and let’s get a handle on it, figuring out what’s working and what’s not.”
“Restorative justice,” which Akbari says is her ultimate goal, involves allowing children to talk about why they are causing disruptions or getting into fights.
Akbari points toward Sheffield Elementary School Principal Patricia Merriweather as an example of an administrator using the right policies to get results, suspending only one student a year.
“She pursues actively engaging counselors, teachers, stakeholders and parents to make sure those issues are resolved and the child can stay in school,” Akbari says. “I love what she’s doing.”
Sam Stockard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.