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SDE Issues New Guidance for Student Suspensions

Commissioner of Education Mark McQuillan issued new guidance dated October 1, 2008 to all school districts to help implement the new requirements of Connecticut General Statutes Section 10-233c requiring all suspensions to be in-school rather than out-of-school (unless certain requirements are met) as of July 1, 2009.  This guidance was required by the legislation passed last year, and is available on the State Department of Education website.  In his memorandum to school districts, Commissioner McQuillan invites districts to continue to review the guidance document and submit feedback to help create the most useful guidelines possible.  The Department also promises to hold technical assistance seminars and workshops between now and March 2009 to help districts assess their readiness to implement the new law for the 2009-2010 school year.

As of July 1, 2009, Section 10-233c will require that “Suspensions pursuant to this section shall be in-school suspensions, unless during the hearing held pursuant to subsection (a) of this section, the administration determines that the pupil being suspended poses such a danger to persons or property or such a disruption of the educational process that the pupil shall be excluded from school during the period of suspension.”  The effective date of this legislation was delayed from July 1, 2008 to July 1, 2009 after school district officials across the state protested that the new law was going to require additional staff and supervision of students in in-school suspension programs in most districts.

The guidance issued by SDE contains an overview of the data collected from school districts during the 2006-2007 school year, showing that males are more likely to be disciplined than females, special education students are more likely to be disciplined than regular education students, minority students are more likely to be disciplined than white students, and lower achievement test scores are correlated with higher rates of discipline.  State and local discipline data is available at the State Department of Education website.

Of the 177,360 disciplinary incidents reported to SDE during the 2006-2007 school year, the incidents most frequent policy violations resulting in out-of-school suspension were insubordination/disrespect, disorderly conduct, skipping class, obscene language/profanity, and failure to attend detention/in-school suspension.  According to the SDE guidance, “most of the incidents in the school policy violation category will not meet the criteria for implementing an out-of-school suspension as defined in the amended CGS Section 10-233c.” (Emphasis supplied.)

The guidance from SDE provides a list of “mitigating factors” to be taken into consideration by administration during the pre-suspension conference in determining whether the student poses a danger or disruptive influence on the educational process, including the age, grade level and developmental stage of the student; severity of the infraction or disruption, the student’s disciplinary history and any patterns or identified behavioral antecedents; the student’s intent and expressed reasons for engaging in the problem behavior; special learning, behavioral or emotional needs of the student and whether these needs have been addressed through referral to a CST or other appropriate group; the student’s prior response to disciplinary interventions; the stuent’s academic progress and relative risk of lost instruction, disengagement from school and dropping out; degree of involvement and level of parent support in efforts to improve the student’s behavior in school; and interpretation of culture and communication factors.  These factors are enumerated in a “Decision Guide” for school administrations attached to the new guidance.

It appears that this list includes all of the factors usually considered by school administrators in meting out appropriate disciplinary sanctions for students, so the main difference in implementation will still come as a result of the language of the statute, which states that unless after consideration of these factors there is a danger or disruption posed by the student in the event of an in-school suspension, the presumption must be that any suspension will be served in-school rather than out-of-school.  Of the three example scenarios issued with the guidance for disorderly conduct, insubordination/disrespect, and obscene language, only the last one for obscene language meets the test for an out-of-school suspension.  In that case, the student’s behaviors are escalating, previous attempts at in-school suspension have had no impact on the student’s behavior, and it is felt that the student’s behavior cannot be managed in in-school suspension.

Additional appendixes issued with the guidance deal with application of the new law to students with disabilities, and suggestions for developing an effective in-school suspension program.  The latter includes placement of pupils by age or grade in a positive learning environment, supervision and/or instruction as determined by the district using a qualified individual, prompt access to current school work supplied by the pupil’s classroom teachers, and guidance on correcting behavior.  The guidelines state that if a student is assigned to an in-school suspension location other than the student’s usual school, “the pupil may be eligible to receive transportation services pursuant to and in accordance with the transportation policy of the school district”, suggesting that districts should have (or develop) policies to address this issue.