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Home > Featured > Bill seeks to interrupt school-to-prison pipeline fueled by expulsions and suspensions

Bill seeks to interrupt school-to-prison pipeline fueled by expulsions and suspensions

By Jeri Chadwell

Assembly member Selena Torres presented Assembly Bill 194 before the Senate Committee on Education Monday afternoon.

The bill is geared toward interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline by revising provisions relating to suspensions and expulsions in Nevada’s schools. It has the support of the Washoe County and Clark County Public Defenders’ Offices.

“The Clark County Public Defender’s Office and Washoe County Public Defender’s Office urge your support on AB 194. This bill will provide crucial due process protections to help break the school-to-prison pipeline,” John Piro of Clark County and Kendra Bertschy wrote to legislators in a March 23 letter.

The Justice Policy Institute, a non-profit think tank, identifies the school-to-prison pipeline as increasing school discipline that can lead to more contacts with the criminal justice system. School suspensions and expulsions, experts say, not only reduce classroom learning time, but weaken a student’s connection to the school community and increase the odds they’ll commit a crime.

The bill passed out of the Assembly on April 29 in a 36-6 vote. Legislators who voted against the measure were all Republicans.

AB 194 would require public school districts, charter schools and university schools for profoundly gifted pupils to allow students 18 or older or guardians of minor students to appeal suspensions or expulsions. It would also require them to notify pupils or guardians of their right to appeal and require them to post an explanation of the appeals process online—as well as exempt these appeals from public meeting requirements outlined under Nevada Revised Statutes.

The bill would also prohibit school officials from enacting a harsher punishment for pupils who make a failed appeal to their suspensions or expulsions.

“I just want to stress how important it is that every student has access to due process.”

Jonathan Norman, team chief of the Education Advocacy Program with Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, who joined Torres in presenting the bill said, “We have seen some cases that review may lead to a harsher punishment [and] has scared families out of their right to appeal even when we believed there is merit in appealing.”

Additional language in the bill clarifies that students who are expelled or suspended or are being considered for suspension or expulsion would still be “entitled to receive an education in the least restrictive environment possible.”

Norman, who said he works primarily with foster kids in Clark County, said this was an important aspect of AB 194 during a Q&A session with the committee.

“We would have kids sitting out of school for weeks at a time while the discipline process was playing out, and they were falling behind—and I think this bill makes it, so they have to be in that least restrictive environment while the process is sorting itself out so that they don’t fall behind on education.”

Norman added that this type of absence from classes also affects children’s ability to be placed in a foster home because foster parents often cannot have an unsupervised kid at home all day while they’re working.

Lastly, AB 194 would require school officials to include in their usual annual reports of accountability through which they report on pupil discipline information regarding plans “for restorative justice and the process for progressive discipline used by” schools, in addition to the manner in which schools train employees on restorative justice and progressive discipline.

According to online teachers’ trade magazine WeAreTeachers.com, “Restorative justice is a theory of justice that focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment. Offenders must accept responsibility for harm and make restitution with victims.” Restorative justice, the magazine notes, can improve student outcomes and can keep kids out of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Torres told committee members the bill was born as a result of watching Nevada students and their families struggle to appeal suspensions and expulsions. In the summer of 2020, it became clear that the appeals process for Nevada school districts varied widely.

Chief Trevino of the Washoe County School Police
WCSD School Police Chief Jason Trevino plays tetherball with a student. Image: Carla O’Day

“This seemed unjust,” Torres said, noting that students of color are much more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts.

Torres said that in several school districts across Nevada there is no due process for students facing expulsion or suspension and that her bill would address this.

Senator Marilyn Dondero Loop asked Torres how school districts would be required to develop plans for implementing restorative justice disciplinary practices and if there would be any consistency across districts. Torres said the Nevada Department of Education (NDE) releases guidance on how these practices are developed.

Christy McGill, the director for the NDE’s Office of Safe and Respectful Learning Environments, further clarified—saying that the department moved last year to restorative justice plans from progressive discipline plans and that 80% of school districts and charter school authorities have made this transition as well.

AB 194 has received support from the Clark County Education Association, the Washoe County School District, Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice and the Children’s Advocacy Alliance. No organizations or individuals have provided opposition to the bill during legislative hearings.

In closing out the hearing on AB 194, Torres said, “I just want to stress how important it is that every student has access to due process, and, unfortunately, here in Nevada that’s not the educational environment we have created. I think this piece of legislation ensures that due process is guaranteed in statute and in regulations—and ensuring that our students have access to the least restrictive educational environment possible.”

This Is Reno reached out to the Washoe County School District to learn of its practices pertaining to suspensions and expulsions. These are contained in the district’s 61-page Student Behavior – Administrative Procedures Manual and include restorative justice practices.

In regard to suspensions, the district’s policy is:

“If a student allegedly commits what is referred to as a ‘Big 3’ violation (which includes Statutory Weapons Violations, Distribution (Sales) of Controlled Substances, or Battery on a District Employee with Injury), the school administration would place the student on emergency suspension and schedule a behavior hearing with the District hearing officer. … Under Nevada law, students in possession of dangerous weapons will be removed from school, most likely placed into an Interim Alternative Educational Setting (IAES) … for one year. However, for students involved in battery on a district employee with injury and students involved in distribution of controlled substances, for a first offense the school must create a support plan employing restorative practices, and the child should be returned to their school.”

The district’s policy states that it works to not expel students, “If a student has committed an infraction that would warrant expulsion, the District will typically work to identify education options or an alternative educational setting for the student, rather than permanently removing a student from an educational setting with no educational options.”

This Is Reno also asked for the number of suspensions and expulsions over the last several years, but WCSD was unable to provide that information prior to the publication of this story. The story may be updated when that information is provided.

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