When Elizabeth McCarthy, a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS), was helping to mediate a suspension hearing a few years ago with a second-grade student, the student busily colored a white piece of paper.
Next to the young student’s picture were the letters, “BK, BK, BK.”
“We asked him what those letters meant and he said it was ‘bad kid’ because he was a bad kid,” she said. “That just breaks your heart because these kids are so young and they don’t understand what has fully happened and they were being suspended and disciplined. It’s one reason we took action.”
GBLS and the Boston Public Schools recently reached an agreement – which threatened but didn’t include legal action – to update the BPS Code of Conduct so that students, starting this year, in Grades K-2 will no longer be suspended from school. Also, children in Grades 3-5 will only be suspended for very serious offenses and with due process. The agreement also includes training and professional development to create non-exclusionary, alternative discipline for school leaders and teachers.
McCarthy, who has overseen the GBLS School to Prison Pipeline Intervention project since 2014, said she happened upon the situation by accident. Thinking that she was going to be mediating suspensions, she found that many kids – some of them too young to understand what was happening to them – were being suspended for small things or removed from school. Those suspensions built up over time and became a big problem later in life.
Rather than moving through the notice and hearing process required by law, she said schools far too often called parents and demanded that they come remove their child from school. If parents refused or were unable to immediately respond, schools told the parent, among other things, that their child would be “officially” suspended for a longer period of time, that the school would call 9-1-1, or file a report of parental neglect with the Department of Children and Families (DCF).
“BPS has had a rough year, but I give them credit for working with us and finding a solution,” she said. “These suspensions had such a negative effect on the kids over the long term, and to think an 8 year old or younger could understand or navigate suspension hearing was not right. Many times parents didn’t even know about these suspensions or couldn’t make it to these hearings. I am glad to see this resolution.”
Nearly 18 months ago, GBLS had approached BPS with a class action complaint regarding their practice of suspending students without any due process, in violation of state law. BPS asked GBLS to delay filing the complaint and instead committed to negotiating a comprehensive settlement.
McCarthy said one of the student named in the complaint had an undiagnosed learning disability, and had trouble in the traditional classroom. The student, who is a second-grader, faced several suspensions at a young age.
“That student had been out of school for months upon months and his parents couldn’t get any answers,” she said. “They would call and the school would say he wasn’t supposed to be there. Months went by and he was out of school for a long time. No one could tell them what they were supposed to do. Now, he has gotten help and has returned to his original school. He is thriving there, so there is a real possibility some of these young students can turn their behavior around if they can get help and aren’t sent out of school.”
Interim Supt. Laura Perille said BPS was happy to work towards a better policy for students and families.
“Boston Public Schools is proud of the steps that have been taken to better serve students of all backgrounds, including those with high needs, and our ongoing focus on making sure that students are provided with opportunities for growth and success,” she said. “We thank the Greater Boston Legal Services for its continued participation in the BPS Code of Conduct Advisory Council and for joining our long-standing efforts toward reducing out-of-school suspensions and expanding restorative justice practices.
“With the finalization of this agreement, BPS will be providing support to school staff to ensure full implementation of disciplinary protocols that are consistent with established best practices, legal obligations, and the best interests of all BPS students,” she continued.
Starting this year, students in Pre-K through second grade will no longer have out-of-school suspensions.
BPS data showed that in 2017-2018, there were no suspensions for K-0 or K-1. However, in Grades K-2 to second grade there were 229 suspensions. This year, to date, there are only 33.
Then, beginning in the 2019-20 school year, schools may only suspend students in Grades 3-5 in limited circumstances. Those circumstances include when a child has assaulted a member of the school community and the principal has evidence the student would cause serious physical harm to another if they remain in school. Other instances include having a weapon, a controlled substance, committing a civil rights violation, or committing repeated bullying. Those suspensions have to follow a due process, and also have to be signed off on by a district administrator.
BPS also pointed to figures that show out-of-school suspension rates have steadily dropped since 2013, particularly for black students and students with special needs.
In 2014-15, rates for out-of-school suspensions for special needs students was 9.3 percent. Last year, it had fallen to 4.6 percent. Black student rates fell from 7.6 percent to 3.2 percent.
White, Latino and Asian student rates also fell, but were previously much lower anyway than the other two groups.
Overall, suspensions have dropped from 4.8 percent in 2014-15 to 2.1 percent last year.