Education

Most suspensions for JCPS’ youngest students will no longer be allowed under policy changes passed by the Jefferson County Board of Education Tuesday. In a 5-1 vote, members approved a new policy that will limit suspensions of students in Pre-K to third grade to cases in which the safety of the child or others is determined to be at risk.

District 5 Board member Linda Duncan was the seven-member board’s only “no” vote. District 7 board member Sarah Cole McInstosh was absent.

“We are going to have to do things differently,” JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio said. “I think we are very behind in this move.”

He pointed to a number of school districts across the country that have already banned or limited suspensions for students in the early grades, including in St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Houston and Minneapolis.

Community leaders welcomed the decision.

“This change in disciplinary processes will create a ripple effect with an impact [that] cannot be overestimated. Not only will it directly address troubling issues of equity in discipline, it will be a lever in closing achievement disparities as well,” Kentucky Youth Advocates executive director Terry Brooks wrote in an emailed statement.

The new handbook language is as follows:

“As a district, we remained focused on research based practices that support the social emotional and mental health development of all students. We strive to mitigate racially disproportionate outcomes for our students while also using age-appropriate, early intervention, to design wrap-around supports that foster behavioral change over time. Research tells us that exclusionary discipline, like out of school suspensions, has multiple negative effects on our youngest students, specifically primary (Preschool-3rd grade).

“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 (law violations are identified with a star ‘*’ on the Behavior Code charts), 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. In the event a suspension is warranted, the principal will request approval form [sic] their Zone Assistant Superintendent.”

The district has been under pressure from the federal government and the state to reign in disproportionate suspensions of Black students and students with disabilities. While Black students make up about 37% of the student population, they represent more than 70% of suspensions in Pre-K to third grade. Students with disabilities in the Exceptional Child Education (ECE) program make up 13% of JCPS, but represent 40% of Pre-K to third grade suspensions.

In the two school years before the pandemic, the vast majority of suspensions for students in that age group were for nonviolent behaviors.

Pollio said the district receives approximately $80 million in federal funding for students with disabilities.

“That becomes in jeopardy if we don’t do things differently,” he said.

Duncan said she voted against the change for a number of reasons. For one, Duncan said she believes limiting suspensions reduces the role of the parent in administering discipline.

“We’re taking parents’ intervention completely out,” she said. “There is no parent intervention in this.”

Additionally, Duncan said she’s spoken with principals who are concerned they don’t have the facility space or staff to provide alternatives to suspension when students disrupt class or behave violently.

“I haven’t seen any assurances that the schools are going to have the resources to deal with the offenses that do happen — because they will still happen,” Duncan said.

She said those principals are at “non-Title I schools.” Title I schools are schools that receive extra federal funding because they have high numbers of low-income students.

Pollio said he has asked Assistant Superintendent of Climate and Culture Katy Deferrari, who works on disciplinary policy, to create a task force on alternatives to suspension.

“That task force will be pretty sizable and involve lots of practitioners that have to interact with behaviors, and student trauma and those things every day,” Deferrari said.

Officials did not give a timeline as to when the task force will form or begin its work.

With the vote, the board also approved a number of other changes to the Student Support and Behavior Intervention Handbook meant to foster equity, including making hate speech and racial slurs a more serious offense, and more clearly defining certain behaviors. Members also approved translating the handbook into 10 languages. The handbook has only ever been available in English, even though the district has more than 12,000 English Language Learners (ELLs).

Tentative Budget, ‘Do-Over Year’ Approved

In addition to the handbook changes, the board also approved a $1.6 billion dollar “tentative budget” for the next fiscal year, beginning on July 1. The board will approve the more concrete “working budget” in the fall.

The budget does not include hundreds of millions of dollars the district will receive in federal pandemic relief funding. JCPS stands to receive more than $600 million to help schools respond to students’ needs as the pandemic drags on. Officials said they will give more information on how they will use the federal funding at the June 8 board meeting.

The board also approved requests from 777 students to participate in the “Supplemental School Year Program.” That program allows students to essentially repeat the 2020-2021 school year, much of which was spent in remote learning due to the pandemic.

District officials said students who signed up for the supplemental year still have the opportunity to change their mind, and advised families to make sure they understand the implications of the decision.

Research shows holding back students can have negative impacts down the road, including a higher risk of dropping out.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.