Friday, September 30, 2011

Keep Massachusetts Schools Safe and Expectations for Behavior High

This past week I joined colleagues from the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS) to testify against proposed new legislation that would significantly hamper a principal’s ability to exclude a student from school who distributes drugs on campus or assaults a teacher. Following are excerpts from my testimony:

The proposed Act relative to student access to educational services and exclusion from school (HB178) has several practical and logistical problems rendering it ineffective and detrimental to all students.

• First, the proposed act erodes local school control, imposes unnecessary rules, and prohibits a principal from maintaining high standards for behavior and safety in schools. Each unique student situation must be handled in a way that respects the rights of that individual but balances the student’s needs with the expectation of a safe, secure, and healthy learning environment for all students. Existing law already has specific and significant due process safeguards in place. The proposed law imposes impractical procedures (e.g., A student’s hearing will be held by an impartial building administrator—What if there is only one administrator?) and actually strips students of their rights (Information and evidence presented at a student hearing could be turned over to the police—School principals should not become extensions of the police or courts!).

• The proposed act is silent on who will pay for educational services for excluded and suspended students. Many school systems simply do not have the resources to offer alternative educational programs for suspended students. I support the notion of providing alternative services to keep students on track, but the Legislature will need to provide the significant resources required.

• The data does not support lowering the bar, and it essentially guts MGL Chapter 71, Section 37H. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey data shows that from 1997 to 2009 (the latest year data is available) students who were offered, sold, or given drugs in school decreased from 42% in 1997 to 26% in 2009. Also, the percent of students threatened or injured with a weapon at school decreased over the last ten years from 8.6% in 1999 to 7.0% in 2009. Finally, some are concerned that school suspensions and exclusions exacerbate the dropout rate among minority youth. But the trend is clear: The dropout rate for students of color has decreased steadily from 1995 to 2010 for Hispanic and African-American youth. In 1995 the dropout rate for Hispanic students was 9.3%, and in 2010 the rate was 7.4%; African-American students experienced a similar decline from 7.3% in 1995 to 5.1% in 2010. Setting the bar high for all students appears to be paying off.

• The Legislature sends mixed messages when it tells school administrators there must be “zero tolerance” for bullying but leniency for drug distribution and violence in schools. What, exactly, is the direction the Legislature would like us to take? The proposed act ignores the needs of students who depend on their communities, schools, principals, and teachers to establish high expectations for their behavior. School administrators have a responsibility to nurture school cultures free of drugs, and violence. Young people are savvy—they have little tolerance for adults who coddle, enable, ignore, excuse, or defend inappropriate, unsafe, and illegal behavior. Young people know the difference between right and wrong, and they know that drugs and weapons do not belong in school. And when someone violates their sense of security and safety, they expect adults will act in an immediate, consistent, and fair way to call out and sanction inappropriate or dangerous behavior. This is a special social compact we must have with our students. If you believe in young people, regardless of their personal circumstances, and you set the bar high, you empower them to achieve and grow into responsible adults who care about themselves, each other, and their community.

As written, HB178 diminishes student and school safety, erodes local autonomy and control, and, at its worst, believes young people are incapable of becoming the exceptional young people we know they are and we know they can become. I urge the Legislature to work with the MASS to improve this bill and ensure continued student success and safety throughout the Commonwealth.

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