During the 2019-2020 academic year, 42% of all suspensions and expulsions in Connecticut public schools were the result of “school policy violations.” Unlike what you might assume, these policy violations did not include fighting, personally threatening behavior, or physical and verbal confrontation. Nor did that 42% include drug, alcohol or tobacco use, property damage, sexual misconduct, theft, violent crimes, and weapons. What, then, are these school policies that result in close to half of suspensions and expulsions in Connecticut?
The state defined school policy violations in 2006 as behaviors such as insubordination, disrespect, obscene language and/or behavior, attendance violations, possession of electronic devices, trespassing, personal threats, academic violations, school threats, and other school policy violations.
Is it fair to punish students for getting caught on their phone in class with an out-of-school suspension, the same punishment that students receive for fighting in the hallway? In both instances, students are missing valuable class time and are far more likely to fall behind.
In reality, such harsh punishments in schools only serve to increase the likelihood of future under-education, unemployment, and incarceration among students. These types of zero-tolerance policies in Connecticut schools increase the number of offenses a student can be punished for while simultaneously increasing the severity of those punishments.
Not only are these policies often arbitrary and overly punitive, they also disproportionately target students of color. It was reported that during the 2019-2020 school year that while 1 in every 34 white students received at least one suspension, 1 in 10 Black students were suspended at least once. A 2008 study found that though Black and Latinx students made up only 24% of the student body in West Hartford, they experienced 63% of arrests by school resource officers that year. Furthermore, in three of four cases, it was found that Black and Latinx students were punished more severely — such as being given an out of school suspension or expelled — than their white peers for similar misconduct.
The most recent data collected in 2019 reveals that throughout the state, suspensions and expulsions resulting from school policy violations have gone down from the previous five years. During the 2015-2016 academic year, 62% of expulsions and suspensions resulted from these school policy violations. However, the fact remains that 29,414 incidents reported in 2019 were still labeled as school policy violations.
In June of 2015, the state of Connecticut passed Public Act 15-96, which prohibited out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in preschool, as well as kindergarten through second grade. The only exception that would warrant such a punishment for children so young was behavior “of a violent or sexual nature that endangers persons.”
Believe it or not, in the 2014-2015 school year, prior to this bill being passed, 2,365 preschoolers through second graders in Connecticut had received a suspension or were expelled. However, data from 2019 demonstrates a 72% decrease in out-of-school suspensions for Connecticut students in preschool through second grade after the enactment of Public Act 15-96 when such punishments were reserved for only the most severe misconduct.
Why can’t Connecticut enact similar legislation that would extend its application to grades three through 12? School administrators and officials should no longer have the ability to suspend and expel students for misconduct that is not “of a violent or sexual nature that engagers persons.” Getting rid of the arbitrary and expansive zero-tolerance policies that disproportionately target students of color will benefit Connecticut public schools and their students throughout the state. Therefore, it is imperative that the Connecticut state legislature extends Public Act 15-96 to Connecticut students of all ages and grades to prevent detrimental long-term consequences for the state’s youth.
Taylor Fleming is a senior at Trinity College majoring in Public Policy and Law.