SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A measure trimming back the reasons school children can be kicked out of school in order to address what supporters call the "school-to-prison pipeline" cleared the Legislature on Thursday with bipartisan support.
Under the bill, students in fifth grade or lower could be expelled in only three specific circumstances: for causing serious physical harm to students or employees, or posing a threat of harm, or when expulsion is required by law.
Backers of the measure say it addresses an unconscious bias against minority students, who are expelled at much higher rates than their white counterparts. High rates of school discipline and racial disparities are part of the so-called school to prison pipeline, said Mark McKechnie, executive director of Youths, Rights and Justice, a nonprofit Portland-based law firm pushing the legislation.
He said almost three-quarters or more of the nearly 8,000 elementary school students expelled or suspended from school in the 2013-2014 school year were kicked out for "disruptive behavior."
Rep. Carla Piluso, a Democrat from Gresham who carried the bill in the House, said the proposal only affects very young children — students between the ages of 5 and 11 — and doesn't mean educators wouldn't be able to discipline children who pose a threat to other children or teachers. The bill also requires schools to take steps to address or prevent the behavior that lead to the exclusionary discipline, she said.
"When young children misbehave, they need assistance and support to learn how to improve their behavior, to address the cause of their actions, to learn what is appropriate and not be sent away from accessing their education and the learning environment," Piluso said.
But critics argued the measure could hamstring teachers looking to discipline their students. Expulsions and suspensions are essential tools when it comes to maintaining a civil learning environment, said Rep. Greg Barreto, a Republican from Cove.
"The threat of expulsion or other discipline is one of the most powerful negotiating tools educators have to get parents involved and keep their kids in the check," Barreto said.
The bill follows a measure passed in 2013 getting rid of zero-tolerance policies in Oregon schools. That bill removed the requirement of mandatory expulsions for students who brought items to school that were considered dangerous.
The more recent bill, HB 553, passed the House 40-19 and now goes to the governor for her signature.