By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Under an omnibus education bill, students would be less likely to be suspended or expelled from schools, but more able to access support services for behavioral health issues.
The bill also includes a number of bills before the House and Senate on various education issues including violence in the schools, requiring sexual abuse prevention education and training, changing bond approval to 60 percent majorities, allowing school districts to retain up to 5 percent of unspent appropriations, allowing parents to petition moving their students to another school, developing brain injury policies, extending special education services to students through the age of 21 years old, and requiring bus drivers to have criminal background checks.
The Senate is expected to vote on the bill Tuesday when it meets for the first time since mid-March.
Lawmakers and advocates have worked several years to overhaul the student discipline system after recent studies indicating low-income students, minorities and students with disabilities in New Hampshire are a disproportional share of suspension and expulsions.
Under the bill, school districts and charter school boards are required to develop systems to correct student behavior through both supports and punishments.
The bill allows students to be suspended for up to 10 days at a time for behavior detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of students and staff, or for repeated violations of school rules, and expel students up to a year for specific violations such as bringing a gun to school, or physical or sexual assault.
Before expelling a student, the school board is expected to consider such things as a student’s age, the seriousness of the violation, if the student is disabled, and if lesser measures would be appropriate.
The disciplinary section was supported by the Disabilities Rights Center, NH Legal Assistance, the American Civil Liberties Union NH, New Futures and other organizations.
Michelle Wangerin, Youth Law Project Director for NH Legal Assistance, who helped develop the provisions, said it treats expulsion as a tool of last resort.
And she said it requires school districts to develop policies that leads to fair and equitable punishment for all students, and provides expelled students with alternatives to continue their school work.
The bill also addresses an expelled student whose parents move to a new school district and includes charter schools in the policy.
Michael Skibbie, policy director of the Disabilities Rights Center, also supported the changes to the discipline policy.
He said it will reduce expulsions and in turn reduce harm to the student, his or her family and ultimately increase public safety.
Children Support System
Under the Senate bill, lawmakers seek to promote a children’s mental health and wellness program with the details to be developed by the Department of Education with input from the Department of Health and Human Services.
School districts would receive state help in implementing the “multi-tiered” system of supports to help students with social, emotional, and behavioral health needs. The program is intended to improve outcomes and keep students in their home schools and communities.
The system would include behavioral practices for all students, additional support for designated students and a more intensive system for students with the greatest behavioral needs.
Several people testifying before the committee said the new system of care works in conjunction with the new disciplinary policy and will improve access to mental health services for students.
The bill also will extend adult special education services by school districts to through age 21 years old.
Rep. Sue Mullen, D-Bedford, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said special education programs are inconsistent both in allowing students to continue attending schools after they turn 21 and when districts stop providing services.
Federal law sets the special education age as three to 21 years old, but state law and rules say until age 21.
She said the number of students affected is hard to determine, but said they are only the profoundly disabled, as most students with individual education plans graduate from high school before they turn 21 years old.
The change was opposed by Portsmouth attorney Gerald Zelin, representing the association of special education administrators, saying the bill does more than simply extend the age limitation.
While the financial impact would be small for school districts with students within their system, districts with students in out-of-district placements that cost $200,000 or more a year, could see substantial costs.
Under the bill, the age change would not be effective until July 1, 2021.
School Districts that begin full-day kindergarten programs would be able to receive state adequacy aid the first year of the program under the bill.
Currently the aid is based on first-year enrollment, which means state education aid begins in the program’s second year.
A similar bill initially passed the House earlier this session, but the Finance Committee is recommending it be killed with state revenue declining due to the coronavirus, making it difficult to find the money to cover first-year costs.
The bill allows for state aid based on enrollment when the program begins.
A school district would be required to develop a policy on school safety including teacher assault by students.
The provision requires a committee of educators and administrators to develop the safety policy and discourages any school employee from urging a staff member not to report an assault or similar incident.
Keep the Money
School boards would be allowed to retain up to 5 percent of money appropriated but not spent by the end of the school year to use for emergency or special projects.
Use of the money would require a public hearing and an accounting in the annual school district report.
Parents would be able to petition a superintendent to move their child due to “educational hardship” to another school or academy within the district or to another school district.
A meeting would have to be held within 10 days of the request for the parents or guardian to present their reasons for moving the child to another school.
The Senate voted 3-1 to approve the omnibus bill.
After the vote, committee chair Jay Kahn, D-Keene, said the committee believes schools should be safe environments with the needed resources to make every child successful.
“This bill provides more guidance for schools to assure safety, have access to behavioral health resources, and have flexibility to address fiscal disruptions,” he said. “Our programs must be established in a way that guarantees the right to an adequate education in a safe environment to every student.”
There needs to be provisions for special education services, pathways for an equitable system, a fiscal discussion of higher education, and training and education for child sexual abuse prevention, Kahn said.
“A student’s ability to learn is directly impacted by their safety and we must take precautions to ensure an environment free from fear,” Kahn said.”
The Senate meets Tuesday in Representatives Hall for the first time since mid-March when the legislature suspended operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House meets tomorrow in Whittemore Center at the University of New Hampshire’s Durham campus.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org