PHOENIX — When it comes to suspending or expelling students, how young is too young?
If a new proposal becomes law, the answer in Arizona will be 7 or younger.
House Bill 2123, approved Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee, would all but bar school officials from ousting children in that age group from school for misbehavior, even on a temporary basis.
The measure now goes to the full Senate.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said she recognizes that students can act out and become a disruption.
But she said a unilateral policy on suspending or expelling students based on such behavior fails to recognize what’s behind that, particularly for the youngest students.
“When they were acting out, it was not out of some intentional meaning to act out,” Udall said. She said very often there are “other issues” going on for those children.
That’s also the assessment of Rebecca Gau of the nonprofit organization Stand for Children. She said some of these youngsters may have undiagnosed emotional issues.
Suspension, said Udall, is not the answer. “Having them go home and not learn was not going to help resolve those issues,” she said.
What will help at that age, Udall said, are other interventions done in concert with the parents.
Even when a student needs to be removed from a classroom because of disruptions, she said, there are other options.
For example, Udall said, there is a concept of “in-school suspension,” where the child is removed from class but remains in the building and still has the opportunity to learn.
“All our schools have learned how to do virtual learning,” she said. “So you could allow them to Zoom into the classroom and they could be muted and off-mic so they can’t still disrupt class.”
“The response to a student acting out can’t be that they’re not going to learn anything,” she said. “We need students to learn, they need to get education. And if they don’t get the help resolving those behavior issues when they’re young, then that’s going to be compounded as they grow up.”
There would be exceptions.
None of the prohibitions in the measure would apply if a student 7 or younger brought a weapon to school or was involved in the use or sale of dangerous drugs. Students those ages also could be suspended or expelled for endangering the health or safety of others.
Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, asked for the measure to be narrowed. He wants local districts to be able to suspend students for up to 10 days without running afoul of the proposal.
Udall, however, did not back down. She said that would allow a student to be kept out of school for two full weeks.
“In their eyes, that’s forever,” Udall said of young students. She said even two days is a long time for someone of that age.
Conversely, Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, said she would prefer that school boards look more broadly at their policies on suspension and expulsions for all age groups. She said her experience is that these kinds of discipline are used disproportionately on students of color.
Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, the father of children ages 4, 6 and 7, said he understands how expulsion could be particularly hard for them. But he said he cannot support putting such a restriction into state statutes.
“I do have an issue with us as a Legislature telling the principal and the school superintendent and a school board how they should deal with these unique cases,” Pace said. “I typically don’t support legislation that tells people how to do their jobs.”
Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, who served 12 years on that community’s school governing board, said he also is “a little bit leery” of such state regulation.
“But I do know that as far as the students we are talking about here, I don’t know that I would have been in favor of the harsh discipline as far as multiple days off,” Shope said. “I don’t know who that necessarily benefits.”
In fact, he said, kicking a student out, even temporarily, just puts a burden on parents.
“And I don’t know that the student really changes behavior, potentially, after that,” Shope said.