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Senate bill limits suspensions, expulsions

  SALEM  — Oregon senators gave bipartisan support Tuesday to a bill limiting the reasons young students can be suspended or expelled, a measure intended to address what supporters say is an unconscious bias against minority students, who are kicked out of schools at a much higher rate than their white classmates.

Under the bill, students in the 5th grade or lower could be suspended or expelled for only three specific circumstances, such as intentionally causing serious physical harm to other students or school employees. They could also be kicked out if an administrator decides their behavior is a direct threat to other students or school employees or when required by law.

Supporters say the measure tackles the high rate at which students are suspended or expelled for non-serious offenses. They say 71 percent of the almost 8,000 elementary school students kicked out of school last year were because of "disruptive behavior."

According to data compiled by Youths, Rights and Justice, a nonprofit Portland-based law firm pushing the legislation, over 6 percent of African-American fifth-graders were suspended or expelled during the 2013-2014 school year, compared with around 2 percent of their white classmates. Mark McKechnie, the firm's executive director, said this legislation could keep all of those students suspended for disruptive behavior in school.

Bill sponsor Sen. Sara Gelser, a Corvallis Democrat, said suspending children who have demonstrated difficult behavior often results in an adult with behavioral issues who also can't read. The bill is critical in addressing "the school-to-prison pipeline," she said.

"Kids who are suspended from school are at an increased risk for incarceration and dropping out of high school," Gelser said.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, questioned whether the requirements for schools to subjectively decide whether a student can cause harm to themselves or others could be seen as an unfunded mandate. "I'm afraid the notion embedded in this bill is that somehow schools are capriciously disciplining children," Johnson said.

Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said that while he realizes the proposal will cost time, effort and cash to implement, it is important to dispel the concept that there's institutional racism at schools.

The proposal follows up a measure passed in 2013 getting rid of zero-tolerance policies in Oregon schools. That measure removed the requirement of mandatory expulsion for students who brought items to schools that were considered dangerous.