Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks with first-graders at Hebron Harman Elementary School in Hanover, Maryland, in this May 31, 2018, file photo. The school specializes in mentoring and counseling as opposed to punitive discipline. Credit: Jose Luis Magana | AP

It is critical for the health and well-being of Maine’s children that schools are positive places for learning and development, with academic and disciplinary policies that are supportive and effective.

When children exhibit challenging behaviors in the classroom — often rooted in their needs not being met at home, school, or both — they are far too often removed from school. This does not lead to positive behavior change. When students are removed from the classroom, they miss out on learning. And students struggling to catch up can become frustrated, making it more likely they will act out. This leads to a loop of behavior and removal that exacerbates the problem, rather than solving it.

Unsurprisingly, attendance is linked to achievement. One recent study found that fourth grade students who missed three or more days of school had reading scores more than a full grade level below their peers. Because of the negative impacts of absences on achievement and outcomes, schools across the state work to address barriers to attendance. Yet at the same time, Maine students lose thousands of days of academic instruction each year when they are removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons.

Students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by policies that remove them from the classroom. When schools exclude children from the classroom, students not only miss important opportunities for learning, but can become disconnected from positive adults in the school, their peers, and their education.

Disciplinary removals also increase the risk of a range of educational, economic and social problems, including dropout and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Recent research indicates students may have lower academic achievement just by attending schools with high suspension rates, even if they themselves are not suspended. These practices, then, not only have a negative impact on the student removed, but on all students and their shared learning environment.

Challenging behaviors in the classroom can be difficult for teachers and other students. But it is important to understand these behaviors are often a symptom of problems children are experiencing at home. Chronic, severe stressors can affect the way people respond to situations like conflict, worry, or fear. When children have experienced this kind of toxic stress, it can affect their behavior at school. Suspensions, especially for younger children, also increase the stress on families that are already struggling. Parents lose wages and sometimes even their jobs when elementary school students are repeatedly sent home.

Fortunately, there are effective practices for teachers and parents working with students experiencing challenging behaviors. These alternatives to suspension use proactive, preventative approaches that address the root cause of the behavior and reinforce positive behaviors instead. These approaches have been associated with increases in academic engagement and achievement, and reductions in suspensions and dropouts.

When children can’t be in school, they can’t learn and grow. For all Maine children to thrive in school, we must have both academic and disciplinary policies that support and respond to their needs. We commend Commissioner Pender Makin and her team at the Maine Department of Education for the commitment to supporting schools in meeting the needs of all students. And we recognize schools need more resources to effectively address the needs of all children. But while we support schools in doing what works, we must also assist them in abandoning policies and practices that don’t.

LD 2016, An Act Regarding School Discipline for Maine’s Youngest Students, would limit the use of out-of-school suspension and expulsion for elementary students. It is time for Maine to join the growing number of states acting to create school disciplinary policies and practices that support children with challenging behaviors, and limit the use of measures that remove children from the classroom and disconnect them from their education.

Victoria Morales of South Portland represents District 33 in the Maine House of Representatives. She is chair of the Young People’s Caucus. Atlee Reilly is managing attorney at Disability Rights Maine.