Oregon Could be the Next State to Address Exclusionary Discipline in Early Education
July 2, 2021
The return to in-person learning this fall will be marked with hope, but it also presents an opportunity for educators and policymakers to reevaluate the learning environment for many students. Students will still be reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted the lives of people of color. Young children have dealt with parental unemployment, food insecurity, housing insecurity, illness, and death at staggering rates. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) reported somewhere between 37,300 and 43,000 children have lost a parent due to COVID, and Black children account for 20 percent of those children. As children transition back to school—some attending in-person for the first time—there are likely to be increased occurrences of challenging behaviors as they deal with this trauma.
For multiple years, data have revealed that young children in early education settings are suspended and expelled at alarming rates due to challenging behavior. Suspensions and expulsions are used disproportionately with Black students and those with disabilities, and the disparities are compounded for Black students with disabilities. The Center for American Progress found that children ages three to five with disabilities or emotional and social challenges comprised 75 percent of those suspended and expelled, while making up only 12 percent of the student population.
Data reveal that disparities in discipline begin in pre-K and carry through secondary school. According to a 2018 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, students who experience exclusionary discipline are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of high school, and become involved in the juvenile justice system. The same GAO report found that while schools face many challenging issues that lead to disciplinary action, many districts cited behavioral issues related to mental health and trauma as the primary reason. Black students were overrepresented by 23.2 percentage points and those with disabilities were overrepresented by 13.2 percentage points in the suspension data.
Expelling and suspending students with challenging behaviors can deprive them of much-needed supports and interventions. Resorting to exclusionary practices that remove students from school only lessens their opportunities for learning and takes an emotional toll on them and their families. Keeping children in school with educators who can support them is especially critical now as students have likely lost educational opportunity during the pandemic. This is especially critical for students with special needs who missed opportunities to be identified for special education services or did not receive the services they needed to thrive last year. The disparate impact of COVID-19 on Black students only underscores the need to reform harmful disciplinary practices.
The Oregon Legislature recently passed two bills that, if signed into law, would take important steps to ensure that young children are fairly and appropriately disciplined and supported, and that early educators are equipped to handle challenging behaviors and meet students’ needs. Oregon, like other states, disproportionately disciplines students of color, especially Black boys, with harsher punishments. Oregon’s Discipline Incident’s Collection 2018-2019 shows that 12.52 percent black students in public schools faced out of school suspensions or expulsion compared to only 5.95 percent of white students. Two bills awaiting Governor Kate Brown’s signature take steps towards closing the disparity in exclusionary discipline.
Senate Bill 236 would prohibit punitive measures like suspension and expulsion against pre-K students in schools and child care programs that receive state public funds. After this bill passed through the Senate, it was amended in the House to ban suspensions and expulsions in any early childhood program licensed to operate in Oregon, even those that do not receive public funds. This expansion of authority may go further than any other state’s legislation in banning early childhood suspension and expulsion. If the bill is signed into law, the directive will become effective in July 2026. As of 2019, 16 states and the District of Columbia expressly banned or limited the use of suspension and expulsion for young children, often pre-K and the early grades. Oregon could be next to join their ranks.
The second bill, House Bill 2166, which passed the Senate in late June, establishes the Early Childhood Suspension and Expulsion Prevention Program. This comprehensive program would take steps to limit disparities in exclusionary discipline by providing relevant professional learning and technical assistance to educators and offering support for families. This bill’s content is informed by the Oregon Racial Justice Council’s Education Recovery Committee that was convened by Governor Brown. It dictates that the Board of Education develop a social and emotional learning framework and could have an impact beyond just pre-K.
The bill also requires the Early Childhood Suspension and Expulsion Prevention Program to integrate trauma-informed principles and practices into early education programs and to create a source for early childhood professionals to request technical assistance. Joe Baessler, associate director of Oregon AFSCME, a union representing child care providers, recently acknowledged the importance of funding training and technical assistance for providers. He pointed to the fact that child care providers already face long wait times accessing resources that would help prevent suspending or expelling a child. The $5.8 million appropriated in this bill for Early Childhood Suspension and Expulsion Program would help connect providers to resources instead of having to resort to suspension or expulsion for behavior management.
While banning the use of suspension and expulsion in early childhood settings in Senate Bill 236 is an important step, it’s not enough. Educators often resort to exclusionary discipline practices because of a lack of support or knowledge about how to handle challenging behaviors. In fact, a 2019 national survey conducted by Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led organization, found that 40 percent of teachers wanted more professional development around alternatives to punitive discipline. A much-needed tailored approach which includes trauma-informed training holds promise.
Though Oregon is not the first state to ban expulsion and suspension for young children or to emphasize social and emotional learning, the passage of these two bills in tandem is an exciting development. Banning suspension and expulsion without providing meaningful support to educators could just lead programs to use “soft” suspensions and expulsions, where parents are regularly asked to come pick up their children early for behavioral reasons, or where a center director suggests that a child would do better elsewhere. A ban without appropriate supports could also lead early education programs to simply not report their use of exclusionary discipline accurately. True change to the way children are disciplined and supported requires thoughtful policy implementation, and Oregon has acknowledged that with the passage of Senate Bill 236 and House Bill 2166.