A much-needed change or the last straw? Educators take sides on bill limiting early childhood suspensions

If Colorado lawmakers approve a bill limiting suspensions and expulsions of young children, one elementary school teacher said she’d consider leaving the profession.

“I am an educator. Stop putting all this other stuff in my job. That is what is wrong with teaching. I can’t be a counselor and educator and babysitter and nurse to all my students and do anything well,” she wrote in response to a Chalkbeat survey on early childhood discipline.

The teacher was among more than two dozen educators who responded to the survey, which asked about the potential effects of the proposed legislation, the reasons young students in their schools get suspended, and what tools would help them handle children’s challenging behavior. The survey did not require respondents to provide their full names.

The bill — House Bill 19-1194 — restricts the reasons preschool through second grade students can be given out-of school suspensions and expulsions, allowing them only when students bring weapons or drugs to school, or if children pose a health or safety threat. Out-of-school suspensions would be limited to three days unless a district administrator deems a longer removal necessary to resolve a safety threat. The bill received initial approval in the state Senate Tuesday and will head to the governor’s desk after a final vote later this week.

While most educators surveyed expressed major concerns about the bill, a handful praised the legislation.

“I think it is great!,” wrote an early childhood special education teacher named Joanne. “Kids like to misbehave if they know they are rewarded by getting out of school.”

Supporters of less punitive discipline argue that sending kids home from school for acting out doesn’t help them learn appropriate behavior, increases the likelihood they’ll be suspended again, and disproportionately affects boys, children of color, and students with disabilities.

Some survey respondents described the kinds of behavior that can currently bring about an out-of-school suspension — biting, punching, forcibly kissing classmates, defiance, destruction of property, and bringing drugs into the building. One educator wrote about a second-grader who threatened a classmate with a knife and another student who brought in a BB gun with no bullets to show off to friends — both were suspended.

Many respondents called for more support for teachers, in the form of trainings, greater attention to teacher wellness, and the addition of school-based psychologists, counselors, and social workers. Others advocated for smaller class sizes and more services to help parents address children’s behavior.

Here’s a sampling of survey responses:

The removal of any and all consequences is extraordinarily harmful. A kid can hit another child, get sent to the office and have a “conversation,” then calm down and play. Then they come back into the classroom and yell, “I just got to sit and play with Legos!” They, along with the rest of the class, now believe that if they hit someone else, nothing happens except to get a reward of extra play time in the office.
— Amanda, third-grade teacher in Jefferson County

I hope that the law passes because I believe young children should not be suspended. I teach preschool and have taught kindergarten and first grade, and have never suspended a child. I have taught in Denver Public Schools for 29 years … There is not one go-to trick to de-escalate children. Basically the adults need to stay calm, keep everyone safe, ignore bad behavior, and continue to build a relationship with the child. Conscious Discipline and Pyramid Plus are great resources.
— Sally, Denver preschool teacher

At 22 weeks pregnant, I was kicked in the stomach deliberately by a kindergartner. My baby ended up being fine thankfully but, if I had lost my baby it would be tough to think that the child would just be in my class the next day.
— Ashley, Denver teacher

I am concerned because I feel this is an unfunded mandate. Until schools are fully staffed with mental health providers, teachers alone cannot be expected to handle the complex mental health issues students bring to school.
— Jon, a first- and second-grade teacher for 23 years

I am not concerned [about the bill]. We use restorative practices, and do not suspend young students … Trauma-informed teaching and professional development sessions are helpful, and so is culturally responsive teaching and recognition of English language learners and their unique needs.
— Amy, early childhood special education teacher, Head Start program, Denver

As an administrator, I rarely feel the need to suspend primary-level students unless their behavior is egregious. However, I still need the latitude to make those decisions when necessary. There is a lot of room for interpretation in what constitutes a threat to “safety.” The law would need to clarify this language in order to not pit parents against administrators who feel the need to suspend primary students who choose extremely aggressive and unsafe behaviors at school.
— C., an administrator in Thornton

As a kindergarten teacher for quite a number of years, I’ve seen disruptive behaviors increase and programs for emotionally disturbed children decrease. I oppose House Bill 1194. I actually believe that disruptive children should be suspended earlier and that their problems should be addressed outside of regular classrooms.
— Kindergarten teacher and former preschool director in Loveland

We worry a lot about the student causing the issues, but very little about the victims. I think we need a balance. These students bully students and teachers each day and we need to acknowledge that … This bill will give them the OK to continue to bully and have to take no responsibility for it. To be honest, I am thinking of leaving education because of this.
— Primary teacher in Adams 12 district for 26 years

Our job as teachers is to help students be the best they can be. That is hard sometimes, but suspending a child in no way helps the child … Often, I think the problem is stressed-out teachers who can’t deal with other people’s problems because they have too much on their plates. If we support teachers, then teachers can better support children.
— Karen, preschool teacher in Denver

In early childhood education, [out-of-school suspension] would be for only the worst-case scenarios. Our district only suspended two kindergarten through second-grade students in the last couple of years, but because of the way the people pushing this bill report the data, we look terrible as those two kids were suspended four times. My point is that the data that is being used is being skewed to push a political narrative. Sure, there may have been over 5,000 suspensions last year of kindergarten through second-grade students statewide, but how many kids were suspended? I would bet it is a lot less than what is being reported.
— Rob, Colorado educator

I am concerned [about the bill.] In my experience when an out-of-school suspension is used for a preschool through second-grade student it is due to a significant safety concern … I also think there is a failure to acknowledge the level of adult intervention and supervision that is required when a young student is having an extended unsafe episode. Often times, the nurse, school counselor, school psychologist, and one or two school leaders are required to manage appropriate use of “nonviolent crisis intervention” [when a student’s behavior requires physical intervention], contact families, write a safety plan, and keep other students safe.
— Assistant principal, Denver Public Schools

We don’t have enough time or money to train our constantly changing preschool staff. This is a huge issue. Funding for preschool is different than our K-2 funding. We are much better equipped to support kindergarten through second-grade [educators] with curriculum, programs and professional development.
— Anonymous

Disruptive children, regardless of age, impact the learning of others … Those pushing these issues forward have never experienced a volatile student in the classroom. Teachers and support staff are expected to allow getting hit, scratched, hair pulled, have objects or furniture thrown at them while protecting the other students in their care. Just because [children] are under the age of 8 doesn’t mean that they are incapable of inflicting substantial harm.
— Cyndee, a teacher in Colorado Springs