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By: Ashon McKenzie, Policy Director
Over the last two school years, Ohio handed out more than 70,000 suspensions to Ohio’s youngest learners – students in preschool through third grade – with Ohio’s economically disadvantaged and minority students bearing the brunt of the disciplinary actions.
Mounting evidence over the last two decades shows that expulsions and suspensions in early childhood settings are “stressful and negative experiences” and “should be prevented, severely limited, and eventually eliminated.”
Why? A host of research and data link school expulsion and suspension practices with long-term negative academic and life outcomes. Academically, expulsions and suspensions in early education are associated with expulsions and suspensions in later grades. Young students who are expelled or suspended are more likely to be expelled or suspended in later grades and are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not.
What Does the SAFE Act Do?
Limits Suspensions and Expulsions
The bill limits out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for preschool through third grade students. Out-of-school suspensions and expulsions would only be allowed for violent behavior and to protect the health and safety of others in the school. Schools can still use emergency removal of disruptive students when required.
Requires Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS)
The bill requires school districts to implement a positive behavior intervention and supports (PBIS) framework to “improve the school climate for the purpose of improving academic and social outcomes and increasing the learning for all students.” PBIS is a process that focuses on improving a school’s ability to teach expectations and support positive behavior for all students. It provides systems for schools to design, implement, and evaluate effective school-wide, classroom, non-classroom, and student-specific discipline plans. Schools that have implemented PBIS, typically see significantly fewer office referrals, lower suspension and expulsion rates, greater attendance rates, lower school dropout rates, increased instructional time, greater academic achievement, and greater student engagement.
Provides Funding and Oversight
To make sure schools have the resources to implement PBIS, the bill appropriates $2 million for competitive grants to assist schools in implementation and provides an extended runway—a three-year phase-in timeline—for schools to meet the bill’s requirements. The bill also gives the Ohio Department of Education oversight of school districts’ implementation of the provisions and adds PBIS as a nonacademic measure on the school and school building report cards.
Q & A
Since the SAFE Act was introduced a few questions have arisen from the legislature and from other parties. We thought we would take a moment to answer a few of them.
Q1: Can schools still use in-school suspensions or remove a student from the classroom for pervasive disruptions.
A1: Yes. The bill allows schools to use of in-school suspensions for discipline. However, the bill itself stands as a testament to how ineffective suspensions (in-school or out) are in improving student conduct.
Q2: Which other states or jurisdictions are taking these kinds of steps?
A2: Similar laws were enacted in 2017 in Arkansas, Maryland, and Tennessee; and New Jersey, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Oregon enacted similar laws in 2015-16 with different discipline limit ranges from Pre-K to fifth grade.
Q3: Why do we needs this law at the state level? Why not just leave this up to individual school boards?
A3: Statewide challenges need statewide solutions. Our suspension and expulsion practices are systemic issues not confined to just a few districts. The challenges exist all throughout the state and have been identified as an issue throughout the nation.
The Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio is highly supportive of the policies like those of the SAFE Act, which focus on a positive and nurturing school climate, appropriate social-emotional development, and positive, preventive discipline practices. Now is the time to move forward and upgrade our approach to discipline in our schools. The way we handle discipline for our most vulnerable children will have long-term consequences creating a pipeline from our cradles to our juvenile justice facilities and prisons or leading our children on the pathway to resilience, achievement, and preparation to contribute to our state and our economy.
Resources: For more on this issue, check out the following resources.
School Discipline Policies and the Cradle to Prison Pipeline®, Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio
Model School Code on Education & Dignity, The Dignity in Schools Campaign
Addressing Children's Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools, Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio
 Policy Statement on Expulsion and Suspension Policies in Early Childhood Settings, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education, https://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/school-discipline/policy-statement-ece-expulsions-suspensions.pdf