A bill that would make it harder for educators to issue out-of-school suspensions and would stop them from removing kids from class for school-uniform violations failed to pass the Louisiana House of Representatives on Wednesday but is scheduled to be reconsidered on Tuesday.*

A separate bill, that would preserve the autonomy of Recovery School District charter schools if they  rejoin the Orleans Parish School Board, passed the House.

House Bill 646, which proponents are calling the Safe and Successful Students Act, was authored by Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, and Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, and is supported by a coalition of advocacy groups that includes the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and the Capital City Alliance. The bill also outlines new ways to curb school bullying.

While 50 representatives voted in favor of the bill, with 31 opposed, it didn’t get the two-thirds vote necessary to clear the House.

Even though a state law passed in 2003 already mandates that educators incorporate positive-behavior support techniques into their school discipline policies, this bill would outline specific rules for doing so.

Under the new rules, students asked to leave class would have to complete missed classwork, engage in “restorative practices” (to resolve conflicts through group discussion) or be referred to the school counselor. School leaders could choose to give in-school suspensions or detentions. Out-of-school suspensions would be forbidden unless all other options had been exhausted, but violations of school-uniform policy would never be grounds for suspension or removal from class; nor would repeated absences or tardiness.

The measure is in part a response to criticisms that “zero tolerance” discipline policies do little to keep kids in school; instead, they lubricate a school-to-prison pipeline that can be hard to escape. Time and again, studies have proved that suspensions aren’t the way to control unruly kids, said Jolon McNeil, project director of the Juvenile Justice Project’s Schools First initiative.

“They actually create worse outcomes for kids,” she said. “They don’t get us to better academic achievement.”

McNeil’s organization worked with Smith and Bishop to draft the legislation and has been tracking suspensions in New Orleans schools.

Although the current law was written with the intent of keeping kids in school, it hasn’t worked out in New Orleans. High out-of-school suspension rates have persisted in city schools since the law was passed, even at schools that implemented strategies to support positive student behavior. About 60 percent of New Orleans public schools issued out-of-school suspensions at a higher rate than the state average in the 2010-2011 school year, according to Louisiana Department of Education data.

Many schools give demerits for violations of school-uniform rules, and some schools have sent kids home for wearing the wrong clothing. Multiple demerits can lead to detentions, which, in turn, can lead to suspensions at some schools. Smith has said she hopes the bill will put an end to kids being sent home for uniform infractions.

The bill has drawn some criticism from school leaders, however. Caroline Roemer Shirley, of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, acknowledges that high suspension rates are an issue, but said she sees the bill’s rules as restrictive of administrative autonomy. Ben Kleban, head of New Orleans College Preparatory Academies, said that while he doesn’t believe the bill conflicts with any of his schools’ current practices, the requirements could create “more and more red tape” that schools have to deal with before they can address student needs.

“I also find it problematic that the Legislature believes it knows how to better manage student discipline than educators themselves,” he said in an email.

New Orleans College Prep had the highest state-reported out-of-school suspension rate in the city in the 2010-2011 year, at 61 percent. Kleban said the school is on track to reduce that to 30 percent this year.

Kleban said that his schools don’t suspend students for school-uniform violations.

Shirley’s charter school association released a white paper in December that outlined their own findings about suspension and expulsion rates in schools. The report agreed that research does not show zero-tolerance policies are effective at controlling misbehavior, nor did it dispute that suspension and expulsion rates are high in New Orleans schools. It noted, however, that Recovery School District’s expulsion rate is now lower than the pre-Katrina rates, before a majority of city schools were removed from Orleans Parish School Board control.

Charter return bill clears House

A second bill that would allow high-performing Recovery School District charters to retain their autonomy if they opted to return to their parish school board’s portfolio advanced Wednesday with a unanimous House vote. In preserving their autonomous status, the bill permits federal grants to continue flowing directly to such schools, without the school board taking a cut.

If the bill clears the Senate, it would be seen as a win for the Orleans Parish School Board.  All 13 New Orleans schools that were eligible to return to OPSB control this year declined, with many school leaders citing the status issue as the reason. The legal change doesn’t necessarily mean eligible schools would return in droves, though. Long-time school leaders such as Sophie B. Wright’s principal, Sharon Clark, say that beyond the money concerns, they aren’t yet sure that the board won’t slip back into the chaos and corruption for which it was known before Katrina.

This story was updated after publication to include Ben Kleban’s estimate of the current school year’s suspension rate at New Orleans College Prep. 

*Correction: This story was updated on May 28 to report that the bill had passed the House. Our reporting was based on information from the state Legislative website, which said that the bill had passed the House and was pending introduction in the Senate. But according to an update on the site, the bill did not pass the House. (May 28, 2013)

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...