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Arizona Lawmakers Reject Expulsion Rule In Schools

NPR File Photo

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Arizona schools remain free to suspend or expel students, no matter how young.
A proposal to ban that practice for most students prior to the fifth grade failed by a single vote Thursday on the House floor. Foes suggested that it doesn't really go far enough.
But Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who crafted HB 2123, said the way some people would like to amend the measure is precluded by federal law.

She now will try to convince at least one of her colleagues to change their mind and have it reconsidered.

Current law says students can be suspended or expelled for any number of reasons, ranging from disruptive behavior and damaging school property to bringing a gun or weapon onto campus. But the statute is open ended, saying children can be expelled for any reason "as the school district deems appropriate.''

Udall, however, said that punishment is inappropriate for younger children. Instead, her measure removes that as an option for those in kindergarten through fourth grade.

"They get further and further behind and they end up dropping out,'' she said.

"These are the children that end up in bad situations at home, in prison, in bad situations in our community,'' Udall continued. "So by helping these kids, these young children, stay in school we really are helping communities in incredible ways.''

She said there are other options like in-school suspension where a student is placed into another room but still gets instruction. That even can be offered from the main classroom through online methods.

Rep. Pamela Powers Hannley, D-Tucson, pointed out that HB 2123 has exceptions.

Children still could be removed for bringing a gun or drugs to school. Suspension and expulsion also would remain an option if there are "aggravating circumstances,'' including preventing other students from learning or interfering with the teacher's ability to maintain control of the classroom.
"When a child comes to school with a gun or drugs, or acts out so extremely that they are endangering themselves or others, that's a cry for help,'' she said.

"That's a child in need,'' Powers Hannley said. "With this bill, that cry for help is met with punishment, which is the usual course of action for the Arizona Legislature.''

Udall said it's not that simple. If nothing else, she said federal law requires schools to remove children who bring weapons or drugs onto school grounds.

"So that is out of our hands for the most part,'' Udall said.
Rep. Jennifer Pawlik, D-Chandler, said she supports the idea of taking suspension and expulsion off the table as a punishment for young children. And she said schools should help children who are "struggling to maintain appropriate behavior in the classroom.''

"But by not addressing the underlying reasons for the behavior, we're not helping the children be successful in the classroom, nor in society,'' Pawlik said.

What's missing from HB 2123, she said, is any funding for the school programs that would be required as alternatives to removal.
"And we don't mention training for teachers,'' Pawlik said.

But House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said the legislation is a needed step in the right direction.

"I find it very difficult for us that we are suspending 5, 6-year-olds and providing them essentially with the punishment of not going able to learn,'' he said. "Punishment should never be you not being able to access education.''

There was no immediate indication from Udall of what efforts she will make to line up the necessary 31 votes for approval on a measure that already cleared the Senate without a single dissent.

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