Laws will change Ohio school safety, behavior, suspensions
July 08--Students and teachers will be operating under some new guidelines beginning this fall because the state legislature recently passed a host of measures aimed at balancing school safety techniques with the state's interest in getting all children the best education possible.
The state legislature has recently passed new laws that would require require that schools do more to limit the number of its youngest students who are suspended as punishment for misbehavior. Other bills require teachers to be trained on student suicide prevention and would increase training for school resource officers.
Overall the measures are an attempt, supporters say, to keep students safe and in classrooms longer.
"Research is pretty clear that one of the factors contributing to the achievement gap is the considerable amount of time that struggling students spend out of the classroom," State Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner said when announcing the bill. "Already academically behind, suspensions only push them further and further behind."
Legislation was passed to mandate staff training on student behavior and to better prepare resource officers for school safety issues.
Two other measures would add required suicide prevention training and change rules on reporting student absences.
Springfield City Schools Superintendent Bob Hill said while those specific measures don't change what's taught in schools or how, each item does touch on the core mission of educating students.
"In order for students to receive a high-quality education, they must be provided a safe, secure and positive environment," Hill said. "As educators, when we are able to create a collaborative culture of learning, students will succeed."
Each year, Ohio schools suspend about 35,000 students in third grade or younger.
House Bill 318, now headed to Gov. John Kasich for his signature, prohibits out-of-school suspensions or expulsions for pre-K to third-grade students who commit minor offenses, starting in the 2021-2022 school year. Violent offenses could still be handled via expulsion.
Lehner said only 5 to 8 percent of those suspensions are because of violence.
Jay Smith, deputy director of legislative services for the Ohio School Boards Association, said schools have battled whether to keep disruptive students in class in some way, or remove them so they don't hold other kids back. He said many schools are moving away from "zero-tolerance" policies.
"If you have second-graders talking back continually, and they're disrupting other students, (the teacher may) recommend that the student is suspended so they can correct their behavior," Smith said. "Well, this bill puts more emphasis on the school to assist and ... keep them in school and continue learning."
Schools face adjustment
In-school suspensions are a common method to walk that line, and HB 318 requires such suspensions to be served in a supervised "learning environment." Smith said that will require a change, because in many schools, young students on suspension work in a room near the main office with oversight from an assistant principal, counselor or secretary who is also doing other work.
The description basically matches how elementary students on in-school suspension are handled in Centerville schools, according to Superintendent Tom Henderson. Serving 2,800 students, Centerville's high school is large enough to have two teachers monitoring suspended students. But hiring staff for that purpose would be inefficient at much smaller elementary schools that have very few suspended students.
Henderson said Centerville has been a "zero tolerance" district for fighting, where out-of-school suspensions are the norm whenever a student strikes another. But he said for students in the district's kindergarten-first grade schools, there might not be mandatory consequences.
"We look at the circumstances, the age of the student, and make decisions that are age-appropriate, but also keep the school building safe," Henderson said. "There might be other interventions used before out-of-schools suspension depending on the principal and parent working together. ... But it's also a good opportunity to modify that behavior."
Disagreement in principle
Not all state legislators supported the suspension changes, which include giving the student the right to a faster hearing when they are facing emergency removal from school, and a requirement that suspended students be allowed to complete missing assignments. When HB 318 was first instroduced, it dealt primarily with training for police officers in schools. That version passed the House 92-2. After Lehner's suspension/expulsion changes were added, it passed only 71-20.
Racial Justice Now, an Ohio advocacy group that has pushed for years to reduce school suspension and expulsion, thanked Lehner for her doggedness in the face of opposition and called the bill "a major step in the right direction." But RJN interim director Hashim Jabar said there is more still to be done to address racial disparities in discipline.
"One study from the Schott Foundation showed that 100 percent of pre-K students suspended in the state of Ohio were black boys," Jabar said. "We would like to see requirements for implicit and explicit bias training for all school staff and implementation of restorative practices."
The bill also requires that within three years, schools must train certain staff on positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS), a system aimed to help students prevent and correct bad behavior. Colleges must train those studying to be teachers on the system as well.
Henderson said those behavior interventions often require a team approach, especially when working with emotionally disturbed students. He said Centerville has a counselor in every school and mental health therapists working in some schools to make that effective.
Police in schools
House Bill 318 also requires that new school resource officers (SROs) receive 40 hours of specialized training on topics including school security, identifying trends in drug use, de-escalation techniques for youth, how to be a positive role model, and reducing the number of referrals to juvenile court.
Deputy Doug Hale of the Butler County Sheriff's Office, a veteran SRO at Lakota East High School and regional rep for the Ohio School Resource Officers Association, said the training is important because the school job is not for everyone in law enforcement. Hale said 40 hours of training, while good, will not cover every situation an SRO will see.
"It's about building relationships," Hale said, adding that while road officers are reactive, SROs need to be proactive to prevent problems from happening. "Whenever kids are in the hallway, be out there walking around. Interact, talk with them, reach out to that person who never looks at you or smiles. Shake their hand and ask them how they're doing. ... You try to be positive."
Smith, of OSBA, said the bill doesn't require schools to have an SRO (about 70 percent of districts currently do), and existing SROs will be grandfathered in without the training. Henderson and Hill said SROs in Centerville and Springfield already take training courses, but it's not consistent statewide.
Hale said SROs deal with everything from basic school security to suicide prevention, tense interactions with parents, struggling special needs students, and school threats.
The new law also requires an agreement between each school district and police department clarifying the purpose of their SRO program. Hale said that's good, because both personally and via trainees, he seen school officials and SROs disagree on how to handle situations.
"You have to have the right fit, the right person. The wrong fit can ruin a program," he said.
The bill orders the Ohio Department of Public Safety and Ohio Facilities Construction Commission to conduct a state-level school security study by Feb. 1. And there is some funding included in the bill to support all the training it requires, but Hill said it won't be enough to help everyone.
Other school bills
House Bill 502, which steps up training requirements for educators in how to identify students at risk of suicide, passed the House but still needs to go through the Senate. Teachers, and others would be required to actually attend the training once every two years. Current law only requires that schools offer training once every five years.
House Bill 428 is aimed at allowing students to openly pray in school and use school buildings for religious meetings. It would mandate public schools give students who want to meet for religious expression the same access to facilities as student secular groups. And schools would no longer be allowed to limit the expression of religion during lunch. The bill cleared the House, 67-26, but has not gone to the Senate.
Senate Bill 216, which passed both houses, made dozens of changes to teacher evaluation, testing format and teacher licensure, among other issues. It also softens law on excessive absences, saying only "unexcused absences" will now count for parent notification law. Under current law, missing 38 hours in one school month or 65 hours in one school year makes a student "excessively absent" and triggers a mandatory parent notification and intervention plan.