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Testimony to Joint Senate School Safety Subcommittee: Creating a Positive School Climate and Eliminating Harsh Zero Tolerance Policies Improve School Safety

The following is written testimony submitted by Ohio Poverty Law Center staff attorney Sarah Biehl at the Joint Senate School Safety Committee hearing at the Ohio Statehouse on March 12, 2013:

Senator LaRose, Senator Lehner, members of the School Safety Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the subject of school safety.  This is a vitally important topic for Ohio’s youth, and I commend you for taking the time to seek public input on how the legislature might best address it and protect children’s right to receive their educations in safe, secure, positive environments.

My interest in this topic stems from my experiences researching, analyzing, and advocating on school discipline issues, including zero tolerance policies, the overuse of harsh exclusionary discipline such as suspension and expulsion, and the negative outcomes for students that come with increased police presence in many schools.  I am here today to urge the committee to focus on taking action that will help Ohio schools work with their communities to build positive school climates where students, teachers, and staff feel safe, protected, and respected.  Evidence is growing across the United States that the best way to do this is to dismantle the school to prison pipeline:  eliminate zero tolerance policies, reduce the use of harsh exclusionary discipline to address minor, non-violent misbehavior among students, and put in place systems that build trust, respect, and dignity among all members of a school community.

In November 2012, the Ohio Poverty Law Center and Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio jointly published an issue brief entitled “Zero Tolerance and Exclusionary School Discipline Policies Harm Students and Contribute to the Cradle to Prison Pipeline.”[1]  In the brief, we drew on Ohio Department of Education data to show how Ohio children are being suspended or expelled from school at alarming rates, mostly for non-violent behavior such as “disobedient or disruptive behavior.”  Moreover, Ohio’s most vulnerable students disproportionately bear the burden of such policies.  African American students statewide are over five times more likely to be suspended for engaging in the same behavior as white students.  Children with disabilities are anywhere from two to eight times more likely to be suspended as non-disabled children.  Low-income children are two and a half times more likely to be suspended as children who are not low-income.

These disparities and the overall trend toward excluding children from school as a form of discipline make our schools less safe because these practices foster negative school climates in which children feel criminalized and isolated from what is, for many, one of the few stable institutions in their lives.  The consequences to schools, children, and communities are devastating.  Research nationally shows that schools that use zero tolerance policies and have higher suspension rates are not safer – in fact, the increase in the use of harsh zero tolerance policies correlates with an increase in violent incidents on school property, and also correlates with lower academic achievement and test scores.  For children, a history of prior suspensions from school is the number one factor that leads to kids dropping out of school and is linked with a host of other negative academic and life outcomes.  And communities where a large number of young people are neither in school nor working are not as productive or stable as communities with higher high school graduation and employment rates.  When our schools and communities are less safe and stable, our students and school staff are, too.

Since 2004, I have coordinated and worked with the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC)[2], a national multi-stakeholder coalition of youth, parents, educators, grassroots groups, and policy and legal advocacy groups that works to challenge the systemic problem of school pushout in our nation’s schools.  One of the goals of the DSC is to ensure that those most affected by the education system and school pushout are at the center of our work and have a voice in policies that will affect their lives.  Since the Newtown shootings last year, a group of youth leaders within DSC have been working on an effort to ensure that their voices are heard by the policymakers around the country who are considering new policies in response to Newtown.  Since none of those students are here today, I wanted to share a small excerpt of their statement[3] with you:

We can imagine the pain and suffering that the youth and families in Newtown, Connecticut are experiencing.  As youth growing up on some of America’s deadliest streets, we are all too familiar with gun violence and its impacts.  Too many of us have been shot and shot at.  We have buried our friends and family members.  Nearly all of us have been to more funerals than graduations.  No one wants the violence to stop more than we do. . . .For forty years, federal, state, and local dollars have gone toward the massive build-up of juvenile halls, jails and prisons while simultaneously severe cuts have been made to our school and higher education budgets. . . .As a result, in communities of color throughout the nation, students now experience a vicious school-to-jail track.  These policies haven’t protected us, helped us to graduate or taught us anything about preventing violence.  They have taught us to fear a badge, to hate school and to give up on our education.  We understand too well that guns in anyone’s hands are not the solution.  You can’t build peace with a piece.

Obviously, these students represent a particularly urban perspective, and are approaching this issue specifically as youth of color, and you as policymakers have to make policies that apply to all school districts in Ohio, urban, rural, and suburban, but I think their perspective is uniquely compelling.  Their full statement goes on to make many of the same recommendations I make to you here today.

Recommendations: 

Instead of continuing harsh school discipline policies and placing more guns and/or police officers in schools, I urge you to consider policies that will build positive school climates instead:

  1. Eliminate zero tolerance policies.  Ohio has a state statute, R.C. 3313.534, that directs Ohio boards of education to adopt “a policy of zero tolerance for violent, disruptive, or inappropriate behavior.”  This state statute is outdated, ineffective, and should be eliminated and replaced with a revised code section specifically encouraging school districts to adopt positive, preventive approaches to school discipline and bullying.
  2. Develop, promote, and fund trainings and other resources for teachers, administrators, and other education professionals on classroom behavior management, school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports, restorative practices and restorative justice programs, and other proven, evidence-based models for teaching children positive behavior.
  3. Create opportunities for parents and students to be involved in implementing and monitoring new school discipline policies that promote positive school culture.
  4. Address bullying in schools by providing incentives for school to put in place preventive bullying programs and by adding an enumerated list of categories of students to be protected from bullying.  Enumerated policies have been shown nationally to be more effective at increasing student safety and improving the efficacy of anti-bullying strategies.

There is a lot more information and data, both locally and nationally, on these topics and I would be happy to share details with any of you who have more questions or would like to talk in further detail.  I hope that I have helped to provide a slightly different perspective on how this committee can best work to increase safety and security in Ohio’s schools, and I hope fervently that regardless of what this committee does, it maintains its focus on ensuring that all Ohio children have access to safe, high quality educations and are treated with dignity and fairness in school.


[3] Statement By Youth of Color On School Safety and Gun Violence In America in the Aftermath of the Mass Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, http://www.dignityinschools.org/sites/default/files/Youth_Statement_Gun_Violence.pdf

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School Discipline Is a Community Issue: Why People Whose Kids Are Grown or Who Don’t Have Kids Should Care About What’s Happening in Our Schools

Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?” 
Jane Nelson

Children “should be fully prepared to live an individual life in society, and brought up in the spirit of the ideals proclaimed in the Charter of the United Nations, and in particular the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.”      Convention on the Rights of the Child, Preamble

Public schools rely too heavily on exclusion – suspension and expulsion – as their primary discipline practice.  When a child or young person misbehaves or breaks a rule, “discipline” in most schools means removal of the child from school, sometimes for one day, sometimes for a year or more.  In almost every situation in which a child is removed from school, this is an illogical, counterproductive tactic.  In some situations, it is dangerous.

Children who want to avoid schoolwork, a particular teacher, a classmate, or school in general learn quickly what to do to achieve being removed from the setting they seek to avoid.  Children who have been repeatedly removed from school fall further behind the more they are removed from their classrooms.  Children who are behind have more and more trouble catching up the more frequently they are gone.  Children who are behind and not engaged in the classroom do not learn.  Children who are not learning get bored and act up.  And so on.

Children who live in high-poverty, high-crime areas are susceptible to becoming both victims and perpetrators of crime when left outside of adult supervision all day while they are not in school. Many, many parents in low-income families work multiple jobs to try to get by, lack access to child care, and cannot stay home and supervise their children when they are suspended from school.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a history of prior suspensions causes young people to drop out of school.  And that far too many young people who are pushed out of school end up in our juvenile and criminal justice systems.

This affects all of us.  Crime committed by and against young people affects our communities, both on a large and small scale.  The young people who tag my garage and break into my neighbors’ homes in my central city neighborhood have almost certainly been failed by the public school system.  And it doesn’t just affect those of us who live in urban areas, where concentrated poverty and crime, and failing schools, are endemic.  Kids are pushed out of school in suburban and rural schools, too.  Data shows that kids who are repeatedly suspended from suburban and rural schools are at higher risk of dropping out, too.  And people who live in suburban and rural communities pay the price when kids from their own small communities, as well as the urban communities in their state, are not in school.

Because they’ve been failed by their schools, young people who are not in school are more likely to become unemployed adults.  They are more likely to become recipients of public benefits like food stamps and TANF.  Young people who are not in school do not disappear.  They simply lose access to almost every legitimate means of earning a living and supporting themselves and their families.  In short,  schools’ failure to provide students a high quality education and treat them with dignity fails not just them:  it fails every person who lives and works in their community, their state, their nation.

Every person who lives in any community, therefore, has a personal interest in ensuring that every young person in that community is in school.  Removing children from school to discipline them for wrongdoing treats them as disposable, as a nuisance that we have neither the patience nor the fortitude to address.  Instead, all community members must take responsibility for ensuring that their schools teach children appropriate behavior, use discipline wisely, and exclude children from school rarely.

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How Student Loan Debt Burdens The Poor

The staggering statistics on student loan debt and the accompanying concern over increasing default rates have been making news for some time.  According to the Federal Reserve, in the first quarter of 2012, student loan debt rose to $904 billion, an increase of $64 billion over 2011.  During the year leading up to the end of March, all other forms of household debt fell a combined $383 billion. A July 1 compromise between Congress and President Obama maintains an interest rate of 3.4% on new federally subsidized Stafford Loans, at least for one more year, but this temporary measure comes at a cost to other programs and does nothing to address the mounting debt of those with outstanding loans.

While many of us who work in legal aid feel the burden of student loan debt, the reality for those in our client population who struggle to get an education as a way out of poverty is even worse.  A recent community development research brief studying student loan debt and default released by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco looked at trends in poverty status and institution type. Not surprisingly, the study found that the relative cost of post-secondary education was more burdensome for lower income households.  A family living on $36,000 or less per year would have to pay more than 70% of its income to cover college costs, after accounting for grant aid.  Wow!  Again, not surprising, but low and moderate income student are over represented in for-profit schools, and the default rate for for-profit schools increased 36% from 2007 to 2009.

For-profit schools have been waging an intense lobbying and legal campaign to keep the river of federal dollars flowing into their coffers and escape accountability.  Sadly, on June 30 the US District Court for the DC District struck down the US Department of Education’s rule – two years in the making- which proposed to implement the “gainful employment” requirements of Title IV of the Higher Education Act.  The rule proposed debt-to-income ratios and debt repayment rates for graduates for schools to remain eligible to receive federal funding.  The opinion explains Title IV and the history of the regulations. To give you an idea of the money driving these efforts, according to David Halpern who blogs for the Huffington Post, the for-profit college industry gets about $32 billion of its estimated $35 billion annual revenue from federal financial aid.

Another vulnerable population is veterans, which have also been targeted by for profit schools. At the end of June, 20 state Attorneys General, including Ohio, entered into a settlement agreement with the owner of the GIBill.com website.  The states alleged that QuinStreet, Inc. violated the states’ consumer protection laws in the course of operating websites that generate leads primarily for the for-profit education industry. Part of the reason why military members are attractive to for-profit colleges is because their benefits don’t count toward the proprietary colleges’ cap on federal Department of Education funding. The law says for-profit colleges must get at least 10 percent of their funding from sources other than federal student loans or Pell Grants.

For an Ohio-specific snapshot, the Project on Student Debt reports that for the year 2010, 68% of Ohio’s college grads finish with an average student loan debt of $27,713. However, this figure does not include debt figures for for-profit schools. Neither does it include the debt figures for students who drop out, and for a variety of reasons, lower income students have higher dropout rates. People with student loan problems call legal aid when they are being subject to collection activities.  Collection efforts can be extremely aggressive, and the defenses for defaulters are limited, although the information and resources for borrowers in default have improved. Notably, our friends at the National Consumer Law Center established http://www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org/ as a resource for borrowers and their advocates.  Recently the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau published about 2,000 comments it received in response to its request for information regarding private student loans.  This request for information is the CFPB’s first step in the investigation of this industry.

I have highlighted only a fraction of the recent news coverage and activities concerning the debt weight of student loans.  It will continue to get attention as one of the many presidential campaign issues, but we need real relief for borrowers, and real reform that prevents industry abuse.  Options for addressing the systemic problems on the state level are limited.  Those of us who are interested need to join forces with our colleagues on the national scene to work for change.

For more information, check out NPR’s interview of Joseph Stiglizt, Nobel prize winning economist, about his latest book:  The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future.

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Testimony on HB 462 – Educational Stability of Foster Kids in Ohio

OPLC attorney Sarah Biehl presented the below testimony in support of HB 462 to the Ohio House Education Committee on April 18, 2012.  To find out more about HB 462, including text of the bill, amendments, and Legislative Services Commission analysis, click here.

House Bill 462 is an Important First Step Toward Preserving Educational Stability for Children Involved in the Child Welfare System

Sarah Biehl

Staff Attorney

Ohio Poverty Law Center

Chairman Stebelton, Vice Chair Newbold, Ranking Member Luckie, and members of the House Education Committee, thank you for providing me the opportunity to speak to you today in support of House Bill 462.  I am an attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, a statewide poverty law organization that works to expand, protect, and enforce the legal rights of low-income Ohioans.  I focus on education law and children’s rights, and have a particular interest in this legislation because I have been concerned for some time about the lack of educational stability children in Ohio’s child welfare system experience.

House Bill 462 is an important first step toward helping to preserve educational stability for kids who are subject of abuse, neglect, or dependency complaints in juvenile courts.  These are children who, through no fault of their own, are pulled out of school and often NOT placed in a new school – often for very long periods of time.  I work directly with legal aid attorneys across the state who represent children who are involved in the child welfare system, and they have told me stories of clients who sit out of school, doing nothing, often for weeks, while they wait for Children’s Services, school districts, and other stakeholders to fight out who is responsible for educating the child and to take care of enrolling the child in school.  One attorney in Cincinnati told me that one of the school districts in her region had refused to enroll her client, a foster child in high school, because he had failed to return two textbooks at his previous school.  He was removed from his home under emergency circumstances, and of course no longer had access to the books.  An attorney in Columbus recently told me that one of her clients, a foster child, had been sitting at his foster home, doing nothing, for six weeks because of confusion regarding his special education records and failure to resolve unpaid fees.

Children who are subject to abuse, neglect, or dependency complaints usually come from less-than-ideal home situations.  Many are dealing with abuse, violence, and poverty.  Many have disabilities and special education needs.  Many have already been having trouble in school due to these problems, which makes sense given the enormity of what these kids face on a daily basis.  Changing schools and missing a large amount of school only exacerbates everything else:  research shows that each change in school placement for a child results in a loss of up to six months of academic progress.[1]  Excessive school absences harm children’s academic progress.[2]  Foster children are particularly at risk.  A recent study showed that more than one third of foster kids in the Midwest have repeated a grade.[3]  Nearly half do not complete high school.[4]  These are not, for the most part, kids who can sit out of school for a few weeks and catch up quickly and easily when they return.

The first choice should be to keep foster children in their home schools, with no or very minimal interruption to their school attendance and support to help them maintain academic progress.  In some situations, however, school placement changes are necessary.  When they are, the Ohio Poverty Law Center believes that kids should be enrolled in their new schools as quickly as possible.  This is where House Bill 462 will help.  House Bill 462 will prevent schools from withholding a child’s education records regardless of whether that child’s parents owe fees to the school.  House Bill 462 would directly address both of the examples I mentioned, where children were denied enrollment in school because of lost textbooks or confusion about whether records should be transferred.  This would be a huge step forward for foster kids, and would put Ohio on the path toward ensuring educational stability for children in the child welfare system.

Of course, the Ohio Poverty Law Center supports provisions already existing in the Ohio Revised Code that prevent schools from charging fees to low-income children who qualify for free school lunches.  In the case of children in abuse, neglect, or dependency situations, however, it is not always feasible to check their eligibility for a fee waiver.  House Bill 462 helps ensure that children who are involved in the child welfare system will be able to transfer school records without delay.

In the future, it would be wonderful to see the legislature take the next steps toward educational stability for children in the child welfare system and guarantee all foster children the right to immediate enrollment in school, akin to the rights guaranteed to homeless children under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.  But, in the meantime, House Bill 462 takes an important first step toward addressing an issue crucial to the educational success of Ohio’s most vulnerable children.

Thus, the Ohio Poverty Law Center urges you to vote in favor of House Bill 462.


[1] Temple, J. A., and Reynolds, A. J.  “School mobility and achievement: Longitudinal results from an urban cohort.” Journal of School Psychology 37.4 (1999): 355-377.

[2] Chang, Hedy; Romero, Mariajose, Present, Engaged and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades, National Center for Children in Poverty (September 2008).

[3] Mark E. Courtney et al., Chapin Hall Center for Child, University of Chicago, Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Conditions of Youth Preparing to Leave State Care, at http://www.chapinhall.org/research/report/midwest-evaluation-adult-functioning-former-foster-youth (last visited 4/17/2012).

[4] Ronna Cook et al., Westat Inc., A National Evaluation of the Title IV-E Foster Care Independent Living Programs for Youth: Phase 2 Final Report, at http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED348599.pdf (last visited 4/17/2012).

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