An Interview with Catherine Strode
This week, the House Education Committee will hear testimony on House Bill 1194. The bill establishes requirements under which public schools can suspend or expel students enrolled in preschool through second grade (usually three or four year olds through 7 year olds). Colorado Department of Education reports that 5,849 kindergarten through 2nd grade public school students were suspended from school in 2017-2018. The bill is aligned with national recommendations that seek to limit school removal for very young children while endorsing thoughtful exceptions that ensure school safety.
The bill has bipartisan sponsors in both the House and the Senate. Republican State Representative Colin Larson, says education is a priority issue for him as a legislator. He supports the bill because he says he doesn’t want to set kids back educationally or developmentally at young ages.
What sparked your interest in relation to the discipline of Colorado’s youngest students?
I’m very passionate about school choice and the inequity issues that are inherent in our education system. I consider myself someone that favors discipline and protecting the order of the classroom. But you’re talking about preschool age children, kindergarteners, first graders, and second graders. If an 8-year-old bites you, that’s an 8-year-old not understanding social norms. The idea you could expel a child that young for behavior that should be viewed more as a teachable moment than as a real disciplinary issue, struck a chord with me. You hear about a vast disparity, particularly with students of color and students with disabilities, that end up ultimately getting suspended or expelled. I look at this as an opportunity for us to make a value statement as an educational system. When you are this young, in second grade or below, we need as a society to give you every chance to correct behavioral issues. You’re not going to change or correct a behavior if the knee jerk reaction is to kick them out of the classroom. That was the impetus (for me) to get behind this bill. I want to make sure these young kids are in a school environment where there are professionals who can identify issues and get them help so their academic progress isn’t halted in the cradle. So they have a chance to go on later and succeed in their educational career.
If House Bill 1194 passes, what would you hope it achieves?
The data is overwhelming that kids with disabilities, and minority students, are bearing the unequal brunt of these early suspension policies. Those are two populations with some of the worst educational outcomes; we need to try and figure out what we can do to better serve them. This bill recognizes that rather than setting back a kid’s educational development with a heavy handed action like a suspension or an expulsion, we need to take the time to invest in that child and figure out if there is an intervention that can correct the behavior. We hear all the time about undiagnosed learning disabilities and developmental disabilities. My hope with this bill would be when requiring a kid to stay in the school building, school professionals could potentially diagnose and respond to underlying challenges or needs. This would encourage schools to take corrective action on site, get the kids help for better identification and treatment of social/emotional, behavioral and learning issues. That is the intention of the legislation.
What impact would this bill have on student achievement?
I hope we would start to see an increase in reading scores, particularly in students of color and students with disabilities, groups that right now are disproportionate recipients of out of school suspensions in these early years. That we would ultimately see better literacy leaving high school, an increase in graduation rates, and lower rates of remediation for college work. That’s the ultimate policy goal here. For me, I look at education as the foundation of the rest of your life. If we can figure out how to educate children properly and effectively, we can save money as a state down the road by not incarcerating them. Law enforcement officials talk about the number of people in jails who are functionally illiterate, or have some form of mental health issue. I think there is a direct correlation between not adequately educating kids in the first place and the populations we are seeing today in our criminal justice system. I would much rather spend money on textbooks than jail cells. I would rather get kids the interventions that they need early. We’ll see dividends paid down the road. That’s the hope.
Do you think there is bipartisan support for this bill?
Yes. There is bipartisan support for this bill. I think this bill is narrow and tailored, particularly with the age limit being the second grade. Some of the biggest concerns I have heard come from the rural schools. I wouldn’t say it’s a disagreement with the legislation. Their concern is limited support staff. Working with those schools to try and address resource issues is probably going to be the trickiest part of this legislation. We are trying to create some abilities for rural schools, to approach the idea a little bit differently. We allow for appropriate time to get support staff out to the school. There’s an allowance for that when there isn’t a school psychologist or social worker available on the campus. I think that’s going to be the biggest issue at this point, more so than an issue between Republicans and Democrats.
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.