Educating students during an expulsion: Tutoring, alternative schools or nothing?

(Left) Gov. Malloy at an alternative school in Norwalk. Also pictured are the buildings of alternative programs in Hartford and New Haven.

Left, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at an alternative school in Norwalk. Also pictured are the buildings housing alternative programs in Hartford, above right, and New Haven.

What kind of education should the hundreds of students that are expelled each year from Connecticut’s public schools receive?

Tobias J., who was expelled from a magnet school operated by Bloomfield Public Schools when he was in eighth grade, says he received no alternative education for 13 of the 15 months he was out of school.

He’s not alone. Each year dozens of youths are expelled and sent home with no alternative learning opportunity, state records show.

But most of the nearly 1,000 students expelled each year are provided with either a tutor for a few hours a week or enrollment in an alternative program — which the the state does not oversee or set standards for.

Alicia B. was sent to one of those alternative programs after she was expelled from a Hartford neighborhood elementary school for getting into a fight.

“I would prefer to drop out instead of going back to New Visions,” Alicia B., recently wrote a Hartford Superior Court judge of the program where Hartford Public Schools sends expelled students. “I did not get the education that I needed when I was expelled. I do not want other students to have to go through months at a place like New Visions, where they get work that does not matter and they don’t have the opportunity to learn.”

It is unclear how many students attend this program, how many hours they are taught, who teaches there and whether completed courses count toward the credits students need to graduate. The Connecticut State Department of Education last week was unable to provide any records for the program, and a spokesman for the Hartford Public Schools declined interview requests.

There are 25 programs throughout the state that enroll only expelled students. Officials from dozens of other districts send their expelled students to alternative programs that also enroll other students that have left their neighborhood schools.

State law requires local education officials to provide expelled students with an “alternative educational opportunity during the the period of expulsion,” but it is silent on what the quality of that education must be. However, students over 15 are not guaranteed an alternative education if they have been expelled previously.

The Connecticut Supreme Court in 2010 ruled that Connecticut schoolchildren are guaranteed an adequate standard of educational quality but left it to the lower courts to determine whether that is being provided.

Unhappy that the State Department of Education has provided no guidance and that the Connecticut General Assembly has declined for years to pass proposed legislation that would clarify standards for expelled students, civil rights attorneys representing Tobias J. and Alicia B. are suing the state. The lawsuit uses pseudonyms for the students to protect their identity.

“This is a statewide problem,” said Marisa Halm, an attorney with the Center for Children’s Advocacy, one of three groups representing the students. “The state is responsible for fixing this. These children are not getting even a basic level of education.”

The 48-page complaint describes what it calls “hostile education environments,” where students are given little instruction, the work is too easy, and no grades or feedback are provided.

“I was placed in an alternative education program that was not adequate to meet my educational needs,” Iliana Pujols, a student expelled from Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven told the legislature’s Education Committee last year. “There is no support system for us to get back on the right track.”

The coalition of lawyers suing the state – from the Center for Children’s Advocacy in Hartford, the National Center for Youth Law in California and the K&L Gates law firm in New York City – allege the state is not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide every Connecticut student an education. They also point out that students of color are disproportionately impacted by expulsions.

“This intentional discrimination results in black students being placed in alternative educational environments where they cannot obtain the benefits of public education,” the complaint reads. “The state defendants have taken no action to correct this problem.”

Named in the lawsuit are Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, his education commissioner, the chairman of the Connecticut State Board of Education, and the leaders of the Bloomfield, Hartford and Manchester public school systems.

A spokesman for Bloomfield declined to respond to accusations made about a student expelled from the Global Experience Magnet School, but did provide details on what services the district offers expelled students.

Students from Bloomfield are provided at least 10 hours of tutoring each week and supplemental online help, spokesman Stan Simpson said.

But students like Tobias J., who attend magnet schools that serve multiple towns, must turn to the community in which they live to get an alternative education. And when Tobias J.’s expulsion was up, he was not allowed to return to the magnet school and had to enroll in his neighborhood school in Hartford.

Unclear what his son’s rights were while he was expelled, Tobias’s father did not push back when tutoring was cut off two months into the 15 months his son was unable to return to school, the lawsuit says.

The state education department was unable to provide the Connecticut Mirror with any guidance it has given to districts that operate regional magnet schools about whether students should lose their magnet school seats if they are expelled and who is responsible for their alternative education. The department also was not able to provide any guidance it has given districts on standards for these alternative educational settings.

When this issue was considered by the legislature’s Education Committee in 2013 and 2014, the education commissioner at the time testified against requiring alternative programs to offer specific subjects and minimum hours of instruction taught by qualified teaching staff.

“While we certainly acknowledge the need for quality educational opportunities for all students, we are concerned that in some cases, students who are attending an alternative school program benefit from a different experience – involving, for example, a different curriculum or differing hours,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor testified in 2014. He encouraged the committee to “allow for such flexibility.”

Similar legislation proposed in 2015 failed to win approval from the Education Committee, and the panel’s House chairman doesn’t believe a change is imminent. That’s because nonpartisan fiscal analysts have projected that guaranteeing certain levels of alternative education would cost either the state or local districts millions of dollars.

“There is a countervailing force of the strained budgets,” said state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford. “The two most salient parts of the battle here are, what’s the best policy and what can the district or state afford…You would be hard-pressed to find a superintendent who can say we have the following resources that we can throw at these programs. That’s been a real stumbling block.”

In a statement, a spokesman for Connecticut’s education department focused on the state’s efforts to keep students in school and the decline in students being expelled at school over the last four school years. During the 2013-14 school year, 218 fewer students were expelled from school than in the 2010-11 school year, a 19 percent decline. Local education officials have broad authority over what students can be expelled for.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that all students have access to the kind of education that prepares them for success in life and part of that obligation includes working with and supporting districts to find ways to reduce suspensions and expulsions, address behavioral problems, and make sure students are safe in school, learning and growing,” said Abbe Smith.

Other states have dealt with the issue of what education expelled students must receive.

In Massachusettes and New Jersey, expelled students are entitled to individualized education plans that plot out a strategy for their education and the services they are eligible to receive while they are unable to attend school. In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, expelled students attend programs that are accredited by the state or local boards.

In Connecticut, the courts may have to sort out the stalemate. Lawyers in the case expect the case to come before a judge by late January or early February.

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