As we prepare for the new school year, parents of school-age children are thinking about the logistics of another unprecedented school year. Masks, distancing, and strategies for addressing possible learning losses stemming from the last virtual and hybrid year are on the forefront of everyone’s mind. There is another critical change that parents of young children should know about as students return to the classroom.

The Ohio Supporting Alternatives for Fair Education, or SAFE Act, goes into effect this school year (2021-22). This legislation, passed in 2018, aims to reduce the use of out-of-school discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, in students in preschool through third grade.

Starting this fall, public schools are now prohibited from issuing any out-of-school discipline for students in pre-K through third grade unless their conduct poses an immediate danger to their classmates, teachers, or other school personnel. This includes being sent home during the school day for disruptive or disobedient behavior.

Most people are unaware that PK-3 suspensions and expulsions had been an increasingly common practice in Ohio. Between 2016-18, Ohio school officials issued more than 70,000 suspensions to kindergarten through third-grade students. School exclusion disproportionately affects low-income families – when parents need to stay home with a child during a suspension, those parents are losing income and increasing the chance they may lose their jobs altogether.

As the Ohio Children’s Defense Fund has noted, evidence and research gathered 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.” Ohio has made positive steps in this direction by passing the SAFE Act.

Under the SAFE Act, there are also new protections in place for preschool through third-grade students who are still eligible for out-of-school removal due to dangerous or violent conduct. In those cases, the school must consult with a mental health professional prior to the removal, and if that person feels the child needs further services, the school must assist the student’s family in locating a provider and obtaining the necessary services.

When issuing out-of-school discipline to a student regardless of grade level, school districts are always required to take several steps to protect the student’s rights. First, they must provide written notice to the student and their family of the intent to suspend or expel the student and the reason for the discipline. Then they must give the family the opportunity to contest the discipline.

When a child is suspended or expelled from school, parents and guardians should carefully review the notice provided by the school and ask for a meeting with the child’s teacher and principal if one is not already scheduled. Prior to the meeting, ask for a copy of you’re the child’s records and a copy of the district’s discipline policies. Parents or guardians in need of assistance, can contact an attorney or advocate that may be able to assist. For financially eligible families, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services can advise families on their rights and/or assist in negotiating a resolution with the school. The services are always free.

More information about the SAFE Act school discipline changes starting this fall can be found here: https://www.seols.org/frequently-asked-questions-about-ohios-safe-act/.

Lucy Schwallie, Managing Attorney, Southeastern Ohio Legal Services, Athens, Ohio

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