Contentious debates over education-related legislation regarding transgender students and potential book bans have garnered significant attention during this year’s General Assembly session, but lawmakers also have sent a bill to the governor’s desk that will give school administrators additional options for dealing with disruptive students.
House Bill 538, which passed the last day before the veto period, requires schools to expel students for at least 12 months who physically assault or threaten other students, faculty or staff. They may also be expelled for bringing a weapon to school or for possessing drugs for the purpose of sale or distribution at school. Any such expulsions would be ordered by the local school board.
Rep. Timmy Truett (R-McKee) says his measure is crucial to a public school system that he contends is on “life support” because of increasing incidents of disruptive misconduct and even violent behavior among students.
“We have to do something to fix public education,” says Truett, who is an elementary school principal in Jackson County. “We have to fix something to where people are not wanting to take their kids out of our public schools and send them to private schools or send them to charter schools.”
Just because a student has been expelled doesn’t mean they won’t continue to learn. HB 538 also requires school districts to continue to educate those youth through an in-person or virtual alternative program that includes individualized instruction, counseling, and other supports to help that child get back on track. If warranted, placement in that alternative program can continue after the formal expulsion period ends.
“What I like about this bill... is we have options other than expulsion,” says Rockcastle County Schools Superintendent Carrie Ballinger. “Now, it’s either they’re in the classroom or they’re expelled, and there’s no middle ground, and that is not helpful for any of the parties.”
The legislation also says that students removed from the same classroom three times within the same 30-day period will be deemed “chronically disruptive” and may be suspended from school under existing district policy. (The original legislation said teachers could have a disruptive or threatening student immediately removed from the classroom. But the Senate rejected that provision and instead requires principals to create a policy for removing a student.)
Due process policies remain in place that require schools to provide the student with notice of the reason for their punishment and an explanation of the evidence against him or her. The student will have an opportunity to present his or her own version of the facts in the case. Parents or legal guardians also must be given written notice of any disciplinary action against their child.
Truett says the measure won’t be “a magic pill that fixes everything, but I believe it will help. ... We want to protect our teachers, we want to protect our students, and this is a start in the right direction.”
Why Misconduct Is Escalating
Ballinger and other school administrators say they have seen a stark increase in student misconduct since the COVID-19 pandemic. They say interruptions to traditional instruction along with students being cut off from the stability and security of the normal school routine have exacerbated bad behaviors and mental health problems among at-risk youth.
“School is absolutely the safest place they can be,” says Rep. Lisa Willner (D-Louisville), who is a clinical psychologist and former Jefferson County School Board member. “That doesn’t mean they’re prepared to behave well necessarily because these are kids who are struggling... and we know that removing kids from systems that are designed to support them can really increase the likelihood that they’re going to get into more trouble.”
Eric Kennedy, director of advocacy of the Kentucky School Boards Association, says his group has heard reports of more extreme student behavior for several years now. Not only does that create concerns about safety for students and staff, but he says it’s causing many teachers to consider leaving the profession
“We do not want to have a situation where parents do not feel that the schools are safe,” says Kennedy, “or that employees feel that they are not safe.”
As the nature of the misconduct has escalated, superintendents have asked lawmakers and state education officials for more options for dealing with those situations.
“If it becomes a more serious issue, we may have to have some more serious consequences,” says Superintendent Matthew Turner of the Boone County Schools.
Turner and his board faced a recent incident that illustrates the challenges for school administrators regarding student misconduct. A Boone County middle school student was expelled for a year for making a “kill list” of other youth. When the one-year term of that expulsion expired, that student was allowed to return to the classroom. Parents concerned over the safety of their children launched a petition drive to have that decision reversed. Turner says that by law public schools have an obligation to educate all students.
“There are guidelines we can follow where a student might be expelled from school for a particularly heinous or violent offenses, but there’s also the expectation that a student will come back to school at some point in time,” says Turner. “That’s where, in my own situation, I think that superintendents need more flexibility in how they handle situations like that and how a student may transition back into... their home school or another school setting.”
‘A Band-Aid on a Heart Attack’
Not everyone is happy with the new disciplinary options. Metro Louisville Council member Kumar Rashad is a math teacher at Breckinridge Metropolitan, an alternative high school in Louisville. He says HB 538 is only focused on punishing student misconduct, rather than helping prevent it.
“When kids don’t know math, we teach them math. When they don’t know how to read, we teach them how to read,” says Rashad. “But when they don’t know how to behave, we punish them.”
Rashad argues that stiffer discipline alone won’t lower the rates of infraction, and he’s concerned the new punishments will be unfairly applied to students of color. Instead of more discipline, he says lawmakers should fund more mental health supports for students. They should also craft policies that promote cultural competency among teachers and administrators and implement restorative justice practices that offer alternatives to traditional disciplinary measures, he says.
“To me this whole bill is like putting a Band-Aid on a heart attack,” says Rashad. “It doesn’t address the problem at all.”
Willner also faults her fellow lawmakers for not addressing deeper systemic issues in the state’s public school system such as low teacher pay, insufficient funding, and inadequate school facilities. She also points to Kentucky’s high rates of poverty, child abuse and neglect, and incarceration of women.
“We have to understand some of the deeper issues there that when kids misbehave, they are communicating something to us,” says Willner. “The seeds that we have sown through neglect, we’re seeing now in some of these extreme student behaviors.”
Sen. Stephen West (R-Paris), who sponsored a companion student discipline bill in the Senate says more than half of state spending goes to education and that the General Assembly provided an additional $500 million in funding to public education in last year’s budget alone. He says both his legislation as well as Truett’s measure are a response to pleas they’ve heard from teachers and administrators across the commonwealth to help them deal with the most disruptive of children.
“We’ve gone away from strict discipline,” says West. “That’s probably caused some problems and maybe this is the pendulum going back.”