BOSTON — Students who are suspended or expelled from Massachusetts schools will soon have more educational options, under a new state law signed by Gov. Deval Patrick.
Beginning in July 2014, school districts will have to provide expelled and suspended students with education opportunities, like alternative schools, tutoring or Internet learning modules. Each district will determine the options it will offer.
Mitchell Chester, the state’s Elementary and Secondary Education commissioner, said there is currently no requirement to provide expelled or suspended students with these opportunities, with only a handful providing excluded students with alternative education programs.
Chester said the department fully supports the new law, which Patrick signed Monday, as it helps to ensure a student’s “right to an education.”
“We shouldn’t be washing our hands of school-aged youth by expelling them,” the commissioner said.
Under the new law, school districts will be required to report to the state the number of days each student is barred during the school year, which education officials say will allow the state to better investigate racial and ethnic disparities in these punishments.
The law will establish a 90-school day long maximum period of exclusion and requires schools to consider alternative disciplines before suspending or expelling students.
Supporters say these changes will help students like 19-year-old Somerville resident Sonia Vivas, who was nearly expelled from school in 8th grade.
Vivas said school officials told her she could not return to school after a former friend accused Vivas of physically threatening her.
“It’s the worst feeling when you’re 14 and you don’t know who you are and everyone thinks you’re going to be nothing,” said Vivas, who strongly denies the allegation. After working with an advocate and missing about six months of school, Vivas was finally allowed back. She graduated from high school in 2011.
She said the new law will give students education options that she didn’t have. The law requiring school districts to send discipline notices in both English and a family’s primary language will also help parents understand their options, she said.
Thomas Mela, who worked on Vivas’ case through Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said while he wished the law would’ve taken effect immediately, he hopes “school districts will see the law as a good practice and undertake compliance … as soon as possible.”
Educators and school administrators have also raised concerns over the legislation, saying it will be costly to implement and that the current provisions in place help protect the safety of other students.
In written testimony, the Massachusetts Elementary Principals Association called the legislation “unrealistic in many ways.” The group argues that school administrators do not have the time or resources to collect missing work and lesson plans for suspended or expelled students.
The association did not respond to requests for comment on the new law.
Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat and chair of the Joint Education Committee, said while funding for the law’s programs and practices are a concern, schools will be able to use existing funding to help cover costs.
According to the most recent data from the state’s Department of Education, over 48,000 students received out-of-school suspensions in the 2010-2011 school year in Massachusetts.
Over 100 students were removed from school to an “alternative setting” and nearly 200 were permanently expelled during the same school year, according to state data. But a department spokesman said this data does not reflect the total number of expulsions or long-term suspensions that occurred, as the state currently only collects information on when these disciplines were granted for drug or violent offenses.