A new state law may go a long way in preventing Richmond Public Schools from logging numbers like the 13,500 suspensions it meted out during the 2007-2008 school year.
That law, which passed the General Assembly with overwhelming support in February, prohibits school districts from suspending pupils based solely on instances of truancy as an offense.
An outgrowth of the assembly's legislative Commission on Youth and its ongoing truancy and school dropout prevention study, the law is being hailed by youth advocacy groups. It faced almost no opposition from the public, educators or lawmakers.
“The idea is when we were doing the first year of the study, we found out that suspension was frequently used for students with attendance problems,” says Amy Atkinson, the commission's executive director.
By frequent, she means 16,372 times — that's statewide during the 2007-2008 school year — that truancy was the prim
ary reason a pupil was suspended.
“The thought is it's counterintuitive to suspend kids who don't come to school, to make it OK for them not to come to school,” Atkinson says, suggesting the law will help break the cycle.
Richmond has become increasingly reliant on suspensions to deal with truancy. With a suspension rate that's already tops in the state, 2,634 of its suspensions were for attendance violations in 2005-2006, By the next school year, there were almost double that.
More recently, Richmond has instituted new programs to try to mitigate the overuse of suspensions, and Superintendent Yvonne Brandon has acknowledged that the issue “demands our attention.”
Wade Elligood, president of the Richmond Education Association, says his group approves of the measure.
The law's proponents didn't get all they wanted. Initially it would have prohibited suspension for tardiness too. But legislators worried that ban would take too many tools away from educators.
Sarah Geddes, an attorney with JustChildren, a part of the Legal Aid Justice Society, says the law is a giant step. But she'd have liked to have seen suspension further regulated as a tool for dealing with attendance.
“For a kid who is coming to school late, the same rational applies,” she says. “They're not going to get into the right habit that way. A lot of truancy is about habits. Half the battle is showing up.”
The law's loophole — that it may encourage children who are tardy to simply skip class in order to avoid further punishment — may be a shortcoming, but only the future will tell, Geddes says. The law takes effect next school year, she says, and “baby steps are better than no steps at all — and this is more than a baby step.”