In-school suspensions may lose to budget again

Students who habitually skipped class at Cromwell High School used to be suspended from school for up to 10 days. But that all changed last year when an in-school suspension program was launched at the school: Now students are only sent home if they pose a danger or are a disruptive to others.

“It just doesn’t make sense. Kicking them out of school just pushes them further and further behind,” said Principal Mark Benigni.

A law passed nearly three years ago would bar all districts from imposing out-of-school suspensions except in the case of dangerous or disruptive behavior. But while the measure passed with overwhelming support, implementation has been delayed year after year.

And this year is likely to be no different, with a group of 46 Democratic lawmakers on the Municipal Opportunities and Regional Efficiencies panel and Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell recommending delaying the implementation until July 1, 2012. Rep. J. Brendan Sharkey, chairman of M.O.R.E, said he thinks he has the votes to delay implementation scheduled for July 1.

Critics of the law–including the Connecticut Education Association, the Council of Small Towns, Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education–say it is an unfunded mandate on communities.

By limiting out-of-school suspensions to students who are dangerous or disruptive, the law would force schools to establish in-school suspension programs, said Mark Waxenburg, the lobbyist for CEA.

“So many districts are saying this will cost them money,” he said during an interview.

CCM estimates the annual cost of in-school suspensions at between $9,000 for small towns to $4.5 million for cities.

But Connecticut Voices for Children senior policy analyst Alexandra Dufresne said schools do have alternatives to opening in-school suspension centers, including after school detention, sending a student to the principal’s office and preventing behavior problems with positive reinforcements.

“Everyone gets it, excluding kids from school is bad. We just want to tweak the threshold and change the culture for when a student gets an out-of-school suspension,” she said. “At the end of the day, the school is still responsible for educating that child.”

Seeing this trend of sending too many student home for non-violent infractions, Cromwell High School administrators decided to provide ISS as an alternative. An easy choice, Benigni said.

Benigni said the costs for Cromwell’s ISS program are minimal. He pays two part-time employees a total of about $20,000 a year. But since his school does not always have a student in ISS, the employees also help out with other staff needs.

To pay for the program, he eliminated Saturday detentions and cut back after-school detentions to three days a week.

“You just have to be creative,” he said.

Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, co-chairman of the Education Committee, said he thinks CCM’s cost estimates are too high.

The legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis says the cost of restricting out-of-school suspensions would depend on how school districts choose to implement the law. It estimates the expense would be “minimal” for small school districts, but has the potential to be “significant” for larger school systems.

Sharkey said during a Planning and Development Committee hearing Wednesday implementation should be delayed until there is more certainty about the cost.

“Some are saying it’s going to cost millions, he said. “The parties just need to get together and decide what it’s going to cost.”