A bill being considered in the Virginia House of Delegates would cap the length of a long-term suspension at one marking period.
Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, has introduced House Bill 1600, which would reduce the maximum length of a long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days, the equivalent of one marking period.
“It’s no surprise to anybody that when students are suspended, they’re not learning,” Bourne said.
During the 2017 General Assembly session, the House rejected a bill that would have cut the number of days for a long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 90 school days. Bourne’s bill goes further, cutting the 90 school days to 45.
The bill was rolled out Monday by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus along with a set of others focused on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Legislators from the House and Senate held a news conference Monday morning to introduce the bills, which aim to stop sending students — specifically minority students — into the criminal justice system.
A 2015 investigation from the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit newsroom, found that Virginia is the worst state in the U.S. when it comes to the school-to-prison pipeline. According to the investigation, about 16 of every 1,000 students are referred to police and courts, and Virginia as a whole referred students to law enforcement nearly three times as often as the national rate.
The issue specifically affects black and disabled students.
Black students in Virginia are suspended about four times as much as Hispanic and white students, according to a report from the Legal Aid Justice Center in October. The report also found that students with disabilities were suspended about three times as often compared with nondisabled students.
“This is not just a policy issue for us,” Bourne said. “We have a moral responsibility to care for the students who need it the most.”
Policymakers were joined by members of the Richmond School Board and Richmond Public Schools Interim Superintendent Tommy Kranz.
In Richmond, a School Board committee tasked with improving the division’s climate and culture is investigating alternatives and improvements to suspension, such as a separate school for students in middle and high school. According to the RPS administration, the school with a capacity of 25 students would cost more than $600,000 per year, a large figure for an already cash-strapped division.
“If we don’t put our money where our mouth is, we will lose an entire generation of students to the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who has introduced several budget amendments related to school discipline.
Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and Del. Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, have similar bills in their respective chambers that would address the issue starting in preschool.
Last year, the House rejected a similar bill that would have prohibited students in preschool through third grade from being expelled or suspended for more than five days, except in cases of drug offenses, firearm violations or other certain criminal acts.
This year, lawmakers will try it again.
“This is not a Republican or Democrat issue,” Stanley said at Monday’s news conference. “This is a human issue.”