Education

Leah Wensink’s nine-year-old son loves to learn. The third-grader is a fact-book aficionado, and will often surprise his parents with the details he picks up.

“He’s a really incredible kid,” Wensink said. “He’s wise beyond his years, but then also has deficits in other areas, just like a lot of kids with autism.”

As smart and curious as Wensink’s son is, he also struggles with behavioral challenges because of autism and ADHD. Recently, those challenges led to a school suspension after a physical altercation. His parents asked WFPL not to use their son’s name to protect his privacy.

The Jefferson County Board of Education is on the verge of joining school districts across the country in limiting suspensions for the youngest kids: Pre-K through third grade. It’s a change officials hope will reduce disproportionate suspensions of Black students and students with disabilities.

That could have implications for students like the Wensinks’ son. His parents cast doubt on whether suspension is the right way to address certain behaviors, but others question whether schools have the resources or tools to address unsafe or disruptive behavior without suspension.

An Outburst, Followed By Fear And A Suspension

The Wensinks said their son’s brain is wired differently than most people’s, and sometimes when he’s upset, he gets physically aggressive. The family is working through these behaviors with a therapist, and he’s in a special small classroom for kids with behavioral challenges at Chenoweth Elementary. 

In early May, he had an outburst. He became angry when an art activity was coming to an end, and punched another student in the side, according to district documents provided by the Wensinks. He couldn’t calm down after staff tried to talk it out with him and, finally, a staff member put him in a physical restraint. Restraints are techniques for holding students in place and restricting arm and leg movement. State regulations and district policy allow staff trained in “safe crisis management” to use restraints on students when they believe the child poses “imminent danger of physical harm to self or others.” 

However, being restrained made the boy more upset, and he headbutted and injured a teacher. 

“He said he was trying to escape,” said Pat Wensink, the student’s father. He thinks his son was probably scared when he was restrained. For headbutting the teacher, the school suspended his son for two days. 

“He’s a kid who needs structure, needs support, is in this room to get support and structure, and you’re just going to suspend him for the things he’s here to get help for?” Pat Wensink said he asked the principal.

Under the proposed policy change, schools will have less latitude to suspend younger students. But suspension would still be an option in cases where the student allegedly commits a crime, such as assault or harassment. 

“In an effort to adhere to best practice, unless required to do so under state law, we do not suspend students in Preschool through third grade (P-3). If a P-3 incident involves a law violation…the school will perform a Threat Assessment to determine needed supports to ensure the safety of the child and others who may be impacted. Depending on the outcome of the Threat Assessment, schools may need to briefly suspend to ensure safety and develop a support plan,” the proposed handbook language reads.

A “threat assessment” is a rubric schools use to determine how much risk a student or situation poses to school safety. 

Under the proposed policy change, Chenoweth Elementary would still be allowed to suspend the Wensinks’ son for headbutting or punching, since those behaviors could constitute “assault” under state law. The initial paperwork from the district said the third-grader was being suspended for “third-degree assault.”

“That document saying ‘third-degree assault’ was just like a dagger in the heart,” his mother said.

“For a nine-year-old boy,” his father said.

Vulnerable Students Over-Represented In Suspensions

Most members of the Jefferson County Board of Education are supportive of the proposal to limit suspensions in Pre-K through third grade, especially given the amount of time students have been away from the classroom because of the pandemic.

“Kicking kids out just can't be an option all the time, because they've been out long enough,” District 4 board member Joe Marshall said during an early May board meeting.

JCPS schools are already operating under a moratorium on Pre-K through third grade suspensions, as part of an effort to make the return to in-person learning as equitable as possible. The vote Tuesday would make the moratorium permanent.

Black students and kids with disabilities, like the Wensinks’ son, make up a disproportionate number of suspensions in JCPS.

This is true across all ages, even in Pre-K. Students with disabilities make up 13% of the district's students, but they make up more than 40% of suspensions in PreK to third grade.

Black students are about 37% of JCPS’s population, but they make up more than 70% of suspensions in Pre-K to third grade.

Students in this age group are typically suspended for nonviolent offenses. In the 2018-2019 school year, out of 1,114 Pre-K to third grade suspensions, just 53 were for violent behaviors. 

These imbalances are the main reason JCPS has proposed putting stricter limits on when schools can suspend students in these grades. 

The district has been under scrutiny for its suspension practices for years. The disparities for Black and special education students are one reason JCPS was under a corrective action plan with the Kentucky Department of Education for a little over two years, from September 2018 to November 2020. Additionally, a 2018 investigation by the Courier Journal drew attention to skyrocketing suspension rates for the district’s youngest students.

Atherton High School senior Damon Duvall served on the committee that crafted the recommendation, and got feedback from other students about how they felt about early grade suspensions.

“In the experience of all the students that I’ve talked to, it's just largely ineffective, and it doesn't really do the job of rehabilitation, or teaching students how to function in a classroom environment,” he said. “It really just sets them up for alienation.”

Duvall pointed to research the committee reviewed showing schools disproportionately suspend Black students and students with disabilities, and that it does real harm. It makes kids feel like they don’t belong, cuts into learning time, and makes it more likely a student will drop out down the road. Research also shows teachers’ and administrators’ implicit or explicit racial biases may lead to harsher punishment for Black students than for white students.

Duvall said he’d like JCPS to eventually ban most suspensions for all grades.

“There are cases where it’s necessary, where they’re being like a danger to another student or to the school,” he said. “But I think there should be a much, much greater emphasis on how to fix the problem rather than just shift them away for a few days and bring them back.”

Suspension Limits Likely To Pass, But Questions Remain

While most members of the Jefferson County Board of Education are supportive of the proposal to limit suspensions in the early grades, District 5 member Linda Duncan has some concerns. 

“What are we telling principals to do about the situations where kids are hitting, or biting, or pinching, or slapping, or pushing other kids? What are we telling them that they’re going to do? And are we providing space and staff to support what they need to do?” she asked district staff at a May 4 board meeting.

The behavior handbook has a list of alternatives to suspension, such as a conversation with the school counselor, or a “restorative conversation.” According to another proposed handbook revision the board will vote on Tuesday, restorative conversations “give the student the opportunity to explain what happened from their perspective, identify who was harmed and how, as well as what they need to do to make things right.”

But Duncan said principals tell her they’re worried they don’t have the staff, space or time to respond to students when they disrupt class or behave violently. 

Meanwhile, parents say suspensions are difficult for them to manage.

The Wensinks appealed to the district, and on the second day of their son’s suspension, it was overturned. That means it’s not going to be on his record. But the Wensinks said the damage is done. Their son missed two days of school, and his dad had to take off work.

“Finding out with very little notice that you’ll have to take steps to take care of your child for two days is really not something that you want to hear,” Leah Wensink said.

She’s not sure what purpose her son’s suspension was supposed to serve. If it was meant as a deterrent, she said, that’s not how her son learns. She thinks he probably was doing the best he could, given his disability.

“If they approach this situation again the exact same way, it’s going to go down exactly the same way the next time. He’s learned nothing from this,” she said.

The Wensinks hope the proposed limits on suspension will force schools to come up with more creative and effective ways to address disruptive behavior. In fact, Pat Wensink said he thinks the policy should go further, and ban all suspensions in these grades.

“It makes me really upset that JCPS doesn’t have a more forward-thinking approach to discipline and to working with kids who potentially need the most help,” he said.

JCPS did not make officials overseeing discipline policy available for an interview. The seven-member board will vote on the proposed policy at its 6 p.m. meeting Tuesday, which can be watched on the board’s YouTube channel.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.