A bill that seeks to interrupt the school to prison pipeline seemed to be initially met with some resistance among lawmakers in the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee. After all, this same committee, under the leadership of Joseph McNamara and Grace Diaz, shepherded legislation to deal with student suspensions four years ago.
“This is an area where we have been successful,” said Rep. McNamara with justifiable pride, pointing out that he and Rep. Diaz successfully passed legislation affecting students that were truant.
“Passing that bill,” continued McNamara, “decreased the suspension rate in Rhode Island by, I believe, 30 percent.” Students can only be suspended, under this law, if they are a threat to other student’s safety, or engage in persistent behavior that impedes the ability of others to learn.
Though overall suspensions may be down, racial bias in meting out suspensions is still a problem. A recent report by the RI ACLU has shown that black students are “suspended from school with record high disparity” while Hispanic students “remain severely over-suspended at some of the highest rates observed over nine years.”
Lombardi’s bill is a good start in that it “directs school superintendents to review and respond to discipline data where there is an unequal impact on students based on race, ethnicity, or disability,” and would prevent “out of school suspensions unless student’s conduct meets certain standards.”
The data alone might not have been enough to convince the General Assembly to act on Lombardi’s bill. That’s why the testimony of four students representing Young Voices was so important and persuasive. One after another these young students reported to the committee members what they had personally witnessed.
Grace, a junior at Classical High School in Providence, knows from her own experience that students are routinely suspended for “non-violent behaviors or even for simply being late to school,” actions prohibited under the law passed four years ago. She told of a student who was suspended for being disruptive in class, even though he never presented any threat to the other students. “We all felt sorry for him,” she says, “but there was nothing we could do.”
Students, say the representatives of Young Voices, are routinely suspended for using cell phones, coming late to class, disrespecting the teachers, or swearing. Kendall, a junior at Juanita Sanchez, made an excellent point when she said, “When kids see that their punishment does no correlate with their offense, they become angry, knowing that kids who do egregious acts are held to the same punishment. It is simply unfair. The fact is that schools are not following the law and are finding loopholes around it.”