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Schools could more easily boot disruptive students under bill advancing in Ky. Legislature

Three adults sit at a desk in a legislative committee room. Microphones are in front of them and they are dressed in suits.
Jess Clark
Teacher Kumar Rashad, Bill sponsor Timmy Truett and Rockcastle County Schools Superintendent Carrie Ballinger share their thoughts on House Bill 538.

Kentucky teachers would find it easier to remove disruptive students from their classrooms under a bill that advanced out of the House Education Committee Tuesday morning.

House Bill 538 requires districts to use expulsion for more kinds of student violations, and it allows schools to move “chronically disruptive” students to virtual instruction or other alternative settings.

Republican Rep. Timmy Truett, an elementary school principal from McKee and sponsor of the bill, said the measure would “empower teachers to control what happens inside their classrooms.”

Truett cited testimony from educators earlier this year who said student behavior is a major contributing factor to the state’s teacher shortage, along with low pay and a lack of respect from politicians, students and community members.

“Obviously this does not address the pay,” Truett said. “But it does address the support and the respect.”

Under current state law, schools are allowed to expel students for a number of infractions, including selling drugs and physically assaulting other students and educators on school property or at a school event.

The only time schools are required to use expulsion is if the student brings a weapon to school.

Truett’s measure would require a year-long expulsion for students who make “threats that pose a danger to the well-being of students, faculty or staff of the district.”

For lesser behavior policy violations, the measure allows schools to move students to virtual settings in lieu of expulsion for up to a year or more.

“Ultimately we don’t want to expel kids,” Truett said, “but this bill will open up that opportunity of using virtual as an option as opposed to a student being chronically disruptive inside the classroom.”

Rockcastle County Schools Superintendent Carrie Ballinger testified in support of the measure. She described a recent string of incidents in which a middle school student with severe behavioral challenges forced another student to drink perfume and assaulted a bus monitor.

“I could expel that student, but I’m not certain that that’s the best option,” she said. “Because what happens a year later when that expulsion is complete and that student comes back into my school district?”

Ballinger said the bill would allow for a “soft landing” for students to ease back into school after an expulsion through alternative placement or virtual learning.

“This bill also would allow me the option not to expel the student…I could have the option therefore to place this student on virtual instruction, making certain that I am able…to continue monitoring this student,” she said. “It gives me options.”

Many members of the committee welcomed the measure.

“It is not fair to the 95% of our students who go to school to learn to not be able to learn in the classroom because of the constant disruptions,” said Republican Rep. Steve Riley, a retired school administrator from Glasgow.

Rep. Tina Bojanowski, a Democrat and elementary school teacher in Louisville, also voted in support of the measure. She said she initially had concerns about removing students rather than offering them resources, but that she believes the state has strong systems for behavioral support in place already.

“We do have a process for supporting our kids,” she said.

Others at the committee hearing were not convinced. Jefferson County Public Schools high school teacher Kumar Rashad warned lawmakers that students of color and students with disabilities are already disproportionately suspended and expelled. Rashad, a Democratic member of Louisville Metro Council, urged caution before greenlighting more measures that allow removal from the classroom.

“They could be used to exacerbate those disparities,” he said, suggesting lawmakers find ways to keep struggling students in the classroom, like adding more mental health practitioners.

He also worried about the impact of the measure on public safety.

“When we’re talking about expelling students for a whole year, that’s going to send these students out on the streets. You want crime to go up? It’d do that,” he said.

Kumar’s testimony swayed Lexington Democratic Rep. George Brown, Jr., who said he came to the meeting planning to support the measure, but ended up among the four ‘no’ votes.

“I think Mr. Rashad pointed out some unintended consequences,” he said.

Republican Rep. Felicia Rabourn, of Pendleton, also voted against the bill, calling it “unconstitutional.” She objected to a provision that would allow schools to remove students from the classroom because of incidents that happen outside of the school setting.

The measure allows schools to expel students if they physically assault students or staff off school property “and the incident is likely to substantially disrupt the educational process.”

“I don’t believe it’s the proper role of the school to interfere with what happens after school hours. They shouldn’t be policing students,” Rabourn said.

In addition to the new provisions around expulsion, House Bill 538 would allow teachers to remove disruptive students from class for the entire day. After three removals students can be labeled “chronically disruptive,” and can be suspended or permanently removed from the individual class.

The measure passed the committee 17-4 and can now be considered by the full House.

This story has been updated.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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