On Wednesday, lawmakers in the House Education Committee heard from two co-directors of the University of Vermont Building Effective Supports for Teaching project, who said schools should substantially reduce suspensions and expulsions as a disciplinary action.
Amy Wheeler-Sutton, one of the co-directors, spoke about Act 35, which was introduced in 2021 and relates to the “task force on equitable and inclusive school environments.”
In addition to creating a task force, the act required that a report be submitted to the Legislature annually beginning in 2025 to analyze the outcomes of disciplinary policies — and to limit suspensions and expulsions.
“It’s been really challenging for schools right now. They are trying to balance out the need to address these high-level individualized behaviors and safety concerns while also maintaining the safety and traditions of the other students in the classroom,” Wheeler-Sutton said.
She said due to the ongoing labor shortage need in education, her group recommends legislation that produces support rather than new mandates.
“Our hope is that any legislative action would take the form of additional support, strengthening of existing initiatives that are in place, rather than imposing or mandating anything new for schools at this time,” Wheeler-Sutton said.
One reason the group recommends limiting expulsions is the potential for kids to get more time and access to drugs.
“The challenge with drug and alcohol abuse is that if students have difficulty in that area, sending them home with minimal supervision is probably just going to increase their access to drugs and alcohol,” she said.
She added that under the status quo in Vermont, most suspensions do not involve acts of violence. Examples of behavior that should not result in getting removed from school, Wheeler-Sutton said, include skipping class or cursing at a teacher.
“Most of the suspensions that we are seeing are not due to some violent act,” she said. “… They are primarily disorderly conduct or school conduct violations.”
Another reason given for potentially reducing strong disciplinary action is the potential for social inequalities. However, Wheeler-Sutton admitted that current data isn’t clear bias exists in exclusionary disciplinary actions.
“The way that the data was collected in Act 45 didn’t actually get to a place where we were able to say that certain groups were over-represented in the data,” she said. “So we weren’t able to say that students of color in Vermont were disproportionately affected by this, or students with disabilities were disproportionately affected by this.”
Cassandra Townshend, the other co-director for the University of Vermont Building Effective Supports for Teaching Project, argued that students should remain in school as much as possible.
“As you know, Vermont is not alone in struggling with tricky students with behaviors and also the reactive response of suspension and exclusionary disciplinary practices,” she said. “What we know, and what we know nationally, is that when we exclude students from the learning environment, they are not in the learning environment to receive all of the fabulous stuff that we want them to learn about.”
Townshend suggested that minority groups — such as those with disabilities — may be getting sent home more often.
“There is significant disproportionalities in students being expelled and suspended from school,” she said. “Students who are, or identify as, having a learning disability … as well as our students of color.”
About 5% of students across the nation experience suspension. She suggested that at independent schools, there are cases where students aren’t accepted due to behavioral concerns.
“In some of our private child care centers, often times students are not even being accepted into the program due to behavioral and social, emotional concerns,” Townshendsaid.
The buzzword “equity” — the notion that outcomes for individuals and groups should always be equal — was mentioned as goal for reforming discipline in Vermont’s schools.
“We are hoping, too, that this report obviously is eye-opening ,and that you will really take the time to think about how are we putting policy practices in place that are creating equitable disciplinary practices,” Townshend said.
The hourlong meeting of the House Committee on Education can be viewed online here.