Out-of-school suspensions increased by 14.4% statewide in that same time frame.

And on average, one in every 14 children received a suspension or expulsion — with that number being disproportionately higher for Black students (1 in 7) and Latino students (1 in 11) when it came to suspensions, according to data from the state Department of Education.

The department also says that suspension rates in middle schools are “substantially greater than pre-pandemic levels.”

The numbers may change on an annual basis, but the story isn’t new as some lawmakers, like Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, say the data shows a 30-year trend of “who’s being penalized … punished [and] who doesn’t have the resources to financially support a proper education.”

“The system is set up by the time these children end up in a public school system to the time they exit out. And many of them are exiting out by the third grade. They exit out mentally by third grade. They’re disconnected literally by the third grade,” McCrory said. “The reality is we want to fix this situation and put the tools in place for the educators and administrators to fix the situation — not to continue to put kids out at a very early age.”

Senate Bill 380, an act concerning school discipline, passed out of the Education Committee last week on a vote of 31-13 with proposals that would require services for the youngest children who receive out-of-school suspensions and continues work from last year in regards to collection of school climate survey data.

Young learners

Existing legislation says that schools may impose out-of-school suspensions for third through 12th graders if the student poses a danger or “disruption of the educational process.” It also says administrators may suspend a child if there’s evidence of previous disciplinary problems and if other efforts to address the behavioral concerns are not working. Younger learners, from pre-school through second grade, may be suspended for conduct “of a violent or sexual nature.”

The proposed bill strips out the language describing some of the youngest learners as “violent” or “sexual in nature,” after several people in public testimonies questioned children’s understanding of that type of behavior, especially when they’re under the age of 8.

“The current state law says that children this young can be suspended if their behavior is violent or sexual in nature and I think that language is extremely problematic when we are describing the behavior of the very young. It may be out of control, it may even hurt someone, which is not OK, but we cannot have the laws of our state characterize the behavior of very young children in quasi-criminal terminology,” said Sarah Eagan, Connecticut’s child advocate.

The bill substitutes that language for “behavior that causes serious physical harm,” and requires that these students receive services that are “trauma-informed and developmentally appropriate.”

After concerns about defining what “serious physical harm,” would mean, Rep. Jeff Currey, the House co-chair of the Education Committee, said there’s room to “tighten language,” of the bill as it moves forward.

The legislation would also limit out-of-school suspensions for pre-K through second grade students to two school days.

“It would be our strong recommendation that the state not permit suspension for children in pre-K through second grade for a number of reasons: it doesn’t teach them anything; too harmful; probably worsens the behaviors that folks are trying to address; it disrupts the trusting relationship between a very young child and school. We can’t change young children’s behavior through shame and ostracization,” Eagan said, adding that although the bill doesn’t ban suspensions for these students it “does further the roads toward limiting the use of suspension.”

State data shows since 2018-19, the number of suspensions, both in-school and out-of-school, have declined for pre-K through second graders by 32.6%, but still about 800 students received sanctions in 2022-23. Of those 800 pre-K through second grade students, 304 were Latino, 212 were white and 182 were Black.

School climate

Last year, an omnibus education bill passed with bipartisan support that tackled a handful of issues including the creation of school climate standards based on national guidelines, the creation of a bullying complaint form and of several new practices for local implementation.

Legislators are building on those efforts this session, as SB 380 will require schools to develop standards for their school climate surveys that must include data on “diversity, equity and inclusion and for the reduction in disparities in data collection between school districts, develop a model school climate improvement plan and perform other functions concerning social and emotional learning and fostering positive school climates,” according to language in the bill.

“The bill … [will allow] the state to compare the information collected from school climate surveys, detect when schools are struggling to create safe and positive school climates, and assist schools in their efforts to work toward safe and positive school climates,” said Lauren Ruth, a research and policy director at Connecticut Voices for Children in support of the legislation. “Until there is greater uniformity across survey questions and collection methods, these surveys provide little meaning and are not useful for identifying and utilizing the best practices of schools that display high student and parent satisfaction.”

The legislation also includes provisions that would allow school climate specialists to incorporate improvement plans and will require the state Department of Education to appoint a director of school climate improvement and report “the number of acts of bullying based on a student’s membership in a protected class,” which could include things like race or national origin.

In the 2022-23 school year, there were over 1,000 reported incidents of bullying across the state, an increase from approximately 800 the year prior, though the state said “students attended school in-person to varying degrees; some learned fully/mostly remotely for the entire school year,” because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SB-380 also included provisions that revised district notification procedures when a student is arrested and updated school resource officer reporting requirements.

Jessika Harkay is CT Mirror’s Education Reporter, covering the K-12 achievement gap, education funding, curriculum, mental health, school safety, inequity and other education topics. Jessika’s experience includes roles as a breaking news reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Hartford Courant. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Baylor University.