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St. Louis Public Schools bans out-of-school suspensions for young students

St. Louis Public Schools bans out-of-school suspensions for young students

Last school year, Missouri public schools issued more than 219,000 suspensions. About 10 percent went to students in kindergarten through third grade. St. Louis second-grader Johnny, pictured above, was one of them. In fact, Johnny spent 38 days out of school last year. Hear his story in the We Live Here podcast. PHOTOS BY CAROLINA HIDALGO | ST. LOUIS PUBLIC RADIO

Administrators will no longer be able to suspend students in pre-kindergarten through second grade who attend St. Louis Public Schools next fall.

Superintendent Kelvin Adams on Tuesday outlined several changes to the district’s student code of conduct during a Special Administrative Board meeting.

The most significant change eliminated out-of-school suspensions for the district’s youngest students.

“We just think it’s the right thing to do,” Adams said. “What we’re trying to say is our kids are not bad. Our kids need support. And this is an attempt to get them support.”

The board approved the new code of conduct almost immediately after Adams’ presentation. It goes into effect in the 2016-17 school year.

“I truly believe that kids that are 3,4,5,6 and 7 (years old) … some may know the difference between right and wrong, but how do we help them make the best kinds of choices around right and wrong?” Adams said.

St. Louis Public Schools has been in the spotlight in recent years for its high suspension rate.

And with this newest change, it’s now one of only a handful of school districts nationwide to ban out-of-school suspensions in the early grades.

According to a recent St. Louis Public Radio analysis of early-grade suspensions in Missouri, SLPS led the state in the number of out-of-school suspensions it gave to K-3 students in 2015.

Data also show the district issued more than 1,400 in and out of school suspensions last year to students in pre-K to second grade the group affected by the policy change.

Forty percent of those 575 were out-of-school suspensions.

“What we’re trying to say is our kids are not bad. Our kids need support.
— Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools

At Tuesday’s meeting, Adams said he’d checked this year’s numbers, and found that so far, 475 children in pre-K to second grade had received suspensions.

“I see this as a major issue for education in the city of St. Louis,” board member Richard Gaines said. “We believe we do better with these kids when they’re in school. Sending them home doesn’t do anything but burden the parents.”

Adams has said the district has struggled to find resources and money to support students who may need intervention or other services.

He promised schools will be getting more support with more counselors and professional development in the coming months.

“It’s a holistic kind of approach we’re looking at,” he said. “But at the end of the day we want to reduce the number of kids who are being put out of school, that’s it.”

As it stands, only about half of the district’s 46 elementary schools offer in-school suspension, where a child can be removed from a classroom but not miss school altogether. For students in schools that don't have in-school suspension, acting out in class meant getting kicked out of school. In some cases, for several days at a time.

Even though the district is predominantly black, its suspension stats from last year stood out for another reason: all of the 575 out-of-school K-3 suspensions administrators issued went to black students.

“If we put them out … we’re saying that every time you do something wrong you’re going to be put out of some environment,” Adams said. “We don’t think that’s the best answer.”

Adams said he’s focusing on an early grades suspension ban because of the research around the “school-to-prison pipeline,” that shows that children who are suspended can often end up in the criminal justice system later.

“I see this as a major issue for education in the city of St. Louis,”
— board member Richard Gaines

A few other places around the country have made similar moves.

Earlier this year, a charter network in Boston promised to stop similar punishments following reports by WBUR, a public radio station in Boston.

Two years ago, California enacted the nation’s first statewide ban on K-3 suspensions for things like ”disrespect.”

Terms like that are “rather amorphous,” deputy superintendent Stacy Clay told the board Tuesday.

St. Louis Public Schools, with the help of a community task force, has now eliminated the phrases “Insubordination/Disrespect” and “Disorder/Disruption” from the code of conduct.

Instead it lists specific behaviors, ranks them and gives directions about how they should be addressed.

Under the new rules, things like verbal abuse, leaving the classroom without permission, not participating in class and intentionally distracting other students would not result in an out-of-school suspension for any student, regardless of the grade.

Adams said these and other changes to the code of conduct are aimed at changing the district’s discipline philosophy.

“We realized we need to do a better job of giving kids more support within the school structure around interventions instead of punishment,” he said.

The district also plans to offer more treatment options to older students struggling with substance abuse issues and place a greater emphasis on restorative justice. 

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