Nathan was 15 years old and a straight-A student in Hartford when he got into a fight at school.
“This was a stupid mistake that I made that I would not like to make again, because being out of school…” he sighed and shook his head in disappointment as he shared his story with state legislators on the Education Committee last year.
“Even if we are expelled we still deserve an education. How are we supposed to learn from our mistakes if education is taken away from us?” asked Nathan, who is now a sophomore in high school. “What are we going to do with all that time that we would normally be in school? We get time to do more bad stuff.”
Last school year, 746 students were expelled from school. There were 340 students who were sent home and given homework to complete on their own; 108 were provided tutors to work with a few hours a week; 68 were sent home with no education provided; and 174 enrolled in alternative programs of varying quality because some were not governed by any state standards.
State law requires local education officials to provide expelled students with an “alternative educational opportunity during the period of expulsion,” but has been silent on what the quality of that education must be, and the state’s education department has been unwilling to provide guidance to local districts.
With a lawsuit looming against the state that documented what expelled students were getting – or not getting – state legislators voted to require the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) to set standards for the education students like Nate must receive during an expulsion.
“I made a lot of stupid mistakes when I was a teenager, and I’m guessing if most people in this room were being honest, they would acknowledge the same. So of course we want to make sure there are good educational opportunities for teenagers who make mistakes,” State Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the House chairman of the Education Committee, told Nathan.
And so this week, the Connecticut State Board of Education unanimously approved requirements for the education students must receive during an expulsion.
They mandate “a full time, comprehensive experience, where learning is comparable to what the student would experience in a regular school environment.”
To accomplish this, the state board “expects that in most cases” that enrollment in a education program run by the district or other provider will be necessary. Homebound instruction or tutoring is “unlikely” to meet these requirements, the standards state.
However, there is some wiggle room.
“CSDE recognizes that there may be unusual cases in which placements in such a setting would not be suitable or in which such a setting may not be available,” the standards read.
In those cases – just as for every case in which a student has been expelled – an educational plan for the services that will be provided must be developed and written down. State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell told reporters the department will be able to investigate complaints to ensure that districts aren’t taking advantage of this provision.
While requiring that standards be set, lawmakers left whether to require full-time educational options up to the education department.
“Yes this may be a shift or change in mindset, but implementation of these standards will ensure that students who have been expelled have access to high-quality programming that will position them for success,” Charlene Russell-Tucker, the state department’s chief operating officer, told the board.
“While it is a small number,” said Wentzell. “It is a population that needs our support.”
Some superintendents and school boards from across the state lobbied legislators against standards they consider as too costly and restrictive.
“Though the spirit of this law is appreciated, what it actually amounts to is another unfunded mandate,” Kevin J. Smith, superintendent of Wilton Public Schools testified last year. “Wilton has been successful in meeting the needs of these students because it enjoys the flexibility to tailor alternative education experiences to the individual needs of students.”
No one testified against the proposed standards before the state board.
Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the state’s superintendent association and the former superintendent in Bridgeport, testified in support.
“The previous [proposal] was somewhat overbearing and hard on the dwindling resources we have,” she said, pointing to the limited flexibility the new standards provide. “It’s not a perfect document but it’s a collaborative one.”
Districts also will be required to:
- Have clear written policies on the availability of alternative education for expelled students.
- Inform a child’s parents or guardians at the beginning of an expulsion of their right to apply for a return to school before its scheduled conclusion and the criteria for early readmission.
- Review a student’s plan at least once each grading period to review progress and consider opportunities for early readmission.
- Adopt clear and explicit criteria and procedures to address a student’s transition back to school.
The stakes of getting a student back on the right track are high. Research shows that student suspensions, expulsions and chronic absenteeism contribute to a downward spiral that too often results in involvement with the juvenile justice system.
Marisa Halm, an attorney who represented Nathan and helped him get a better education, said she has seen expelled students falling through the cracks too often.
“We enthusiastically endorse these standards,” said Halm, the director of the TeamChild Juvenile Justice Project at the Center for Children’s Advocacy, whose clients include children in the juvenile justice system. “[We] have first-hand experience of the negative impacts expulsion can have on a student’s school and life trajectory.”
The trajectory for Nathan, who had been involved with the juvenile justice system, improved when the program he was attending was overhauled, changing from a two-and-a half hours a day with no instruction to a full-time program with teachers.
“I am sitting here before you today as a 10th grader in good standing because I received a decent education when I was expelled – but it didn’t start out that way,” Nathan said. “I hated it. I thought about just dropping out.”