Enquirer file photo
Mansfield News Journal
How young is too
young? 36,000 elementary school suspensions
Jessie Balmert and Hannah Sparling, Cincinnati Enquirer
COLUMBUS - Ohio schools dole out up to 36,000 suspensions to elementary
students each year – a number that stunned a Republican lawmaker into
seeking a ban on many suspensions and expulsions.
One young boy cut the bread from his lunch into the shape of a gun.
Another cocked his finger like a firearm, said Sen. Peggy Lehner,
R-Kettering, who leads the education committee. Both boys were
"I was like, 'Are you sure about that?' " Lehner said. "It wasn’t for
serious things like biting and tossing chairs. It wasn’t
So Lehner wants to ban suspensions and expulsions for students in the
third grade or younger – except for cases in which a student threatens
to harm himself or his peers. But she faces opposition from teachers
and school superintendents who would rather make those decisions on a
Lehner said a better alternative is training for teachers on how to
de-escalate misbehavior. Students need more mental health counseling
and more consistent discipline policies, she said. They might also
benefit from in-school detentions rather than suspending or expelling
them from class.
Ohio Department of Education officials warn that 36,000 number could
include duplicates: A student could be suspended for fighting and
disobedient behavior. That's one suspension for two reasons, but it
might be filed separately under each category. That has led some school
officials to question the statistics' validity. Still, more than 17,000
suspensions were issued for disruptive or disobedient behavior alone.
Locally, the number of suspensions and expulsions for young students
varies drastically. Many Cincinnati-area school districts had zero
suspensions or expulsions in the 2015-16 school year for kindergarten
through third grade. Some had a few. Others had a ton.
North College Hill City Schools had 216, according to state data.
Cincinnati Public Schools had 306.
Mt. Healthy City Schools – larger than NCH but less than one-tenth the
size of CPS – had 635.
That’s an unacceptable number, even if some of those are duplicate
listings, said Mt. Healthy Superintendent Reva Cosby, but the district
is aware of the issue and is working to correct it. Cosby is in her
second year as Mt. Healthy superintendent. For too long, she said,
suspension was a go-to punishment for the district rather than a last
“We need to right that,” she said. “We need to have them in class,
engage them in learning, and then, I believe, the discipline will go
Local education officials agree with Lehner that early grade
suspensions and expulsions should be rare. However, most are against a
state-imposed ban, preferring instead to leave discipline policies up
to each community.
"Students do need to be in school. We should not be pushing them out of
school, particularly at those young grades," Cosby said. "But I don't
think that we should take that option away. I think we are
knowledgeable, and we should know when it rises to that level."
How common is this?
Statewide in the 2015-16 school year, there were 81 kindergarten
suspensions for unwanted sexual conduct. There were 15 preschool
suspensions for serious bodily injury and more than 2,000 kindergarten
suspensions for fighting or violence. Those numbers are from a state
The most common category is a catch-all – more than 17,000 suspensions
or expulsions in preschool through third grade for disobedient or
disruptive behavior. But young students are also being kicked out of
Ohio schools for harassment, theft, vandalism, tobacco use, false bomb
threats and, ironically, truancy.
If Lehner’s ban passes, Ohio would become a leader in limiting
suspensions and expulsions. Few other states – or even school districts
– have tried to cull them in this way. In 2014, California eliminated
“willful defiance” as a reason to expel students or suspend students
younger than third grade.
Miami-Dade schools eliminated out-of-school suspensions in 2015,
Seattle schools put a one-year moratorium on elementary school
suspensions, and New York City schools are looking into reducing
suspensions for students in second grade and below.
At North College Hill in Hamilton County, Superintendent Eugene Blalock
vowed to do better. NCH is working on implementing the Positive
Behavior Intervention System, he said, where, rather than punishing bad
behavior, teachers focus on reinforcing good behavior.
Blalock wants to hone in on the why versus the what when it comes to
“You have to look at more prevention,” he said.
CPS actually has a policy that prohibits suspension and expulsion
through the third grade except in extreme cases where it’s required by
law. So, district leaders were surprised by the number of early grade
suspensions and expulsions in the state database.
School board president Ericka Copeland-Dansby said she’ll make an
official school-board assignment to ensure the policy is being clearly
communicated and followed at each CPS school.
District spokeswoman Janet Walsh said she and others are going through
records, trying to find the discrepancy between their policy and the
Perhaps it’s a coding issue, Walsh said, and the wrong data was
submitted to the Ohio Department of Education. Perhaps that many young
students really did present a danger to their classmates. Or, perhaps
some principals weren't following the rule.
“We haven’t gotten to the bottom of it yet,” Walsh said. “We need to.”
It’s a cycle
If a student is suspended, she goes home for a few days, comes back and
is behind. That’s frustrating, and it could make her act out. So, she
gets suspended again and goes home again – where her parents might not
have a ready solution for daytime child care. She returns to school
even further behind and more frustrated.
“If that continues to happen, that child will inevitably come to the
conclusion that he or she does not belong there,” said Greg Landsman, a
Cincinnati City Council candidate who, until recently, ran an education
“Dropping out becomes highly likely. And nobody wants that.”
Landsman doesn’t think age should play any part in suspension or
expulsion policies, but schools should attack the root of the problem
rather than the symptoms of misbehavior. That means having therapists,
counselors and resource coordinators at the ready, he said. If schools
do that when students are 5, 6 or 7 years old, they’ll have fewer
problems when those same students are 15, 16 or 17.
Lehner’s proposal is still in the early stages. Ohio's Legislature is
controlled by her party, but she hasn't pitched her plan to too many
colleagues yet. She's seeking input from teachers and school officials
Any reforms that require more money for schools, such as more mental
health counseling, could be folded into the state budget, which must
pass and take effect by July 1. Still, the state budget is tight, so
asking for extra money could be a hard sell.
Read this story with a chart indicating how many students in grades K-3
were suspended or expelled, and the reasons for them, at The Mansfield News Journal