To Indiana Rep. Robert Behning, the practice of suspending students from school for truancy makes no sense because being out of class seems to be what they want.
However, Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, maintained that in some instances, booting a student from the classroom for chronic absenteeism is a deterrent. Having to sit out of school for a day or two may make that student think twice before skipping school again.
Those differences in viewpoints were underscored during the 2018 session of the Indiana General Assembly and almost sunk Behning’s school discipline bill. The measure introduced by the Indianapolis Republican encourages schools to implement a best-practices behavior and discipline policy that reduces out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
“If they’re not in class, they obviously can’t be learning,” he said.
The bill narrowly survived its initial hearing by the House Committee on Education, squeaking through on an 8-5 vote. Behning amended the legislation and then faced virtually no opposition, getting the measure signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb a few days after the regular session ended.
House Enrolled Act 1421, Behning’s bill, is trying to help schools rethink how they handle students who disrupt the learning environment. Another measure that was also successful during the 2018 session, House Enrolled Act 1228, takes a similar step toward reconsidering how troubled youths are treated by requiring the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute to collect more data on minors in the adult and juvenile courts.
Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, authored HEA 1228. It sailed through the Statehouse and was signed by the governor March 19, the same day as HEA 1421.
The Children’s Policy and Law Initiative of Indiana, a young nonprofit advocating for positive school discipline practices and the decriminalization of youth, provided strong support for both bills. Jau Nae Hanger, attorney and president of CPLI, talked about the two new laws as helping get closer to the root causes of bad behavior and better addressing the needs of young people so they can avoid serious mistakes that will have long-term negative consequences.
Just a little more than two months after these measures became law, a 13-year-old was taken into custody after allegedly shooting a classmate and a teacher at Noblesville West Middle School. The tragic event brought calls for a tough response, in particular a review of the Indiana law that prohibits 13-year-olds from being charged as adults.
Although these are the kinds of things that can spur legislatures to invoke strong criminal laws, Hanger cautioned against reverting from the path of reform that includes Behning’s and McNamara’s bills. She pointed out teenagers’ brains are still developing, so they do not understand the ramifications of their actions. The focus, she said, should be on prevention and mental heath rather than long sentences in state prison.
“That’s how our juvenile and criminal law has developed quite a bit over the years is by one situation,” Hanger said. “We then say we need a legislative response which impacts all kids and we’ve got to be very careful when we go down that road.”
Behning said the goal of HEA 1421 is to decrease suspensions and expulsions by finding positive ways to improve student behavior. Yet he acknowledged his bill is voluntary. Schools are not required to adopt the best-practices discipline model or reduce their suspensions or expulsions, but he maintains taking a noncompulsory approach is better. If the legislation mandated policies about removing students from the classroom, educators would push back and not support it.
Even so, teachers and principals were against the original version of HEA 1421. The Indiana State Teachers Association and the Indiana Association of School Principals interpreted the language in the bill as prohibiting schools from issuing any suspension or expulsion.
At the IASP, Todd Bess, executive director, and Tim McRoberts, associate executive director, said the first version of HEA 1421 was very restrictive and handcuffed schools’ ability to respond.
Bess noted the perception might be that the first action schools take is to suspend or expel disruptive students. Sometimes removing the individual from the classroom is needed but “the vast majority of the schools employ other things before they suspend.”
Still, there are occasions when the student just needs to be separated from the teacher and the classroom. Schools must have that tool available to use in instances where a student is violent, has drugs or is disrupting the other students in the school, Bess and McRoberts said.
“A lot of times, quite frankly, a suspension gets their attention,” McRoberts said.
Data from Marion County public schools show that during the 2016-2017 school year, high schools as well as middle and elementary schools were suspending students, though the number of suspensions in each school varied widely.
Pointing to other statewide data, Behning said more than 100,000 students in Indiana had been suspended last year — about 10 percent of total enrollment.
Teresa Meredith, kindergarten teacher and president of the ISTA, agrees the best place for students is in the classroom, but she also believes suspensions and expulsions need to remain available. She recalled a time when a student threw a chair at her and, although she did not want to remove him from her classroom, she had to keep her other students safe.
The student was suspended and put into home-bound learning. A couple of afternoons at his house with Meredith and a school counselor teaching him while his mother sat in the next room made him change his behavior so he could return to the classroom.
“I think at the core, every teacher believes every student deserves a fair chance, and they can and will learn given the right circumstances,” Meredith said.
A former assistant principal and then principal for 16 years, McRoberts agreed schools want students in the classroom and getting their diplomas on time.
“I think schools, honestly, exhaust every resource and means to try to get kids back into the fold but sometimes it doesn’t work,” he said. “I hate for people to think schools are just tossing kids out because they don’t want to deal with the problem.”
All acknowledged students coming into the classroom today have more baggage. They are suffering from the trauma caused by domestic violence, parents struggling with addiction, the incarceration of a parent, shootings in their neighborhoods, homelessness and food insecurity.
Meredith said educators need to understand the issues and employ trauma-informed instruction to reach these students. Reading, writing and arithmetic are still essential, but if students are hungry or are not sure where they sleep that night, they cannot learn.
Hanger concurred. She also noted teachers have a lot of mandates and expectations placed on them, but when the school leadership buys into the idea of alternative discipline and provides training and support, the outcomes are much better. Taking a positive, instead of punitive, approach to discipline works better, she said, which is why HEA 1421 is an important bill even though it is noncompulsory.
“Positive school discipline refers to specific strategies so we’ve now elevated this language into our code, which is very important to communicating to schools that is what they should strive for,” Hanger said. “It changes the benchmark for schools and ultimately it gives schools a vision where they need to head.”
McNamara’s HEA 1228 is a short four-page bill that specifies the data to be collected from juveniles entering the criminal justice system. Age, gender, race and county of prosecution are among the information to be compiled and made public annually.
The data, McNamara said, will give an accurate picture of Indiana juveniles who are charged with crimes. This will then highlight causes and trends, which will enable the stakeholders, including the Legislature, to craft policies and laws that best address the issues.
Citing national research that has already been done, Hanger noted the information collected will probably not bring any surprises but it will, as McNamara pointed out, give a picture of what is happening in Indiana.
“It’s important to know your own data, to know how you compare,” Hanger said. “If you’re going to craft legislation, how do you really know your legislation is getting to the problem unless you understand the issue, and the data helps us with that.”
An educator herself with more than 20 years experience, McNamara said the best way to handle students who become a discipline problem at school or enter the juvenile justice system is to neither overreact nor underreact.
“In a school setting, it is imperative that the flexibility of punishment remains in the hands of the administrators who are on the ground with the students every day,” she wrote in an email. “If the Legislature becomes prescriptive in the day-to-day discipline procedures, it will not have a good result. It cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach mainly because of differences in local resources.”•