Some local superintendents say they have put together a plan to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions among black and special education students, but there are other factors they can't control that challenge their efforts.
House Bill 1421, which the House passed unanimously on Monday, directs the Indiana Department of Education to develop plans and work with local schools to reduce the number of students subjected to out-of-school suspension or expulsion. According to IDOE, nearly 10 percent of Hoosier students were suspended or expelled during the 2016-17 school year.
Legislators want school districts to develop a discipline-improvement plan to avoid suspensions and expulsions.
The measure is set to go to the Senate early next week.
Several area superintendents expressed concern that legislating the reduction of expulsions and suspensions still won't solve problems they see as rooted in outside circumstances ultimately beyond their control.
The School City of Hammond, which has the largest number of suspensions and expulsions and is the largest school district in Northwest Indiana with 13,868 students in the 2016-17 school year, had 3,890 students who received out-of-school suspensions and 192 students who were expelled.
That means more than 28 percent of students enrolled in the district received an out-of-school suspension, but less than 2 percent were ultimately expelled.
Hammond schools Superintendent Walter Watkins said Tuesday the district has been cited a number of times by the Indiana Department of Education for those issues. He said there are disproportionately more African-American students, particularly male, and more students in special education, who have been suspended or expelled.
"Over the years, we have been mandated by the state to take some of the money generated by special education funding to provide some kind of intervention to prevent and reduce those numbers," he said.
"We have had a variety of programs and training sessions take place at the district to address those issues."
"For some reason, I think it's because of our demographics, we are having a challenging time getting those numbers down regardless of the programs we put in place. We are now looking at some additional interventions we can put in place to reduce those numbers.
"I don't know if anything can be done legislatively. So much of what happens in schools and classrooms is the result of a variety of things over which we have no control. For example, I continually tell people that we have social issues, cultural issues and climate issues that all play a role in the school environment, yet the school is held the most accountable in trying to adjust those issues," Watkins said.
Munster schools Superintendent Jeffrey Hendrix echoed Watkins' sentiments. Hendrix said student and teacher behavior cannot be legislated.
"The focus should not be on limiting suspensions and expulsions, but finding ways to help our students socially and emotionally cope with behaviors that are causing them to misbehave that leads to suspensions and expulsions," he said.
Hendrix said educators need legislators to support professional development programs that help teachers work with students who are struggling in school. He said Munster has some alternative programs and options that are used with students who are not successful in regular school settings, but they cost money.
"My question to the Legislature is how this particular bill will change student behavior or teacher behavior moving forward without classroom supports, counseling supports and financial supports?" he said.
Valparaiso schools Superintendent Ric Frataccia said district expulsions are actions the school takes for weapon possession and distributing substances.
In 2016-17, according to IDOE, 413 students received out-of-school suspensions, and six were ultimately expelled in the Valparaiso school district.
"We try to employ (actions) as an alternative to out-of-school expulsions in an effort to provide the child with an opportunity to remediate him/herself," Frataccia said.
"Expulsion is not an action that I or my team look forward to, but unfortunately there are behaviors that a small percentage of students manifest that compromises or interferes with others and/or the effective operation of the school. I am not exactly sure what motivated the Legislature's interest in this matter."