February 14, 2023

A bill that aims to reduce suspensions and expulsions for early learners passes committee with no recommendation

A Senate committee passed, with no recommendation, a bill that aims to reduce expulsions and suspensions for young learners by a 5-3 vote.

SB 283 would, if enacted, prohibit the expulsion or suspension for more than three days of preschool, pre-K, kindergarten and first and second grade students. The bill would also make expelling or suspending for up to three days an option only if a child causes or threatens bodily injury to another person. It also contains a provision for data collection by both the Early Childhood Education and Care Department and by the Public Education Department on suspensions and expulsions. State Sen. Harold Pope, D-Albuquerque, is the sponsor.

ECECD Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky acted as Pope’s expert witness. She said during a presentation to the committee that early child learners are “three times more likely than K through12”  to be suspended or expelled for behavior problems. She said Native children are 1.5 times more likely to be expelled or suspended than white children; Black children are 2.5 times more likely than their white peers and Hispanic children 2 times more likely to be expelled or suspended. Children with disabilities are 2.5 times more likely to be expelled or suspended than the entire pre-school population, she said.

“The devastating effects of suspension and expulsion have on young children is what’s driving SB 283,” she told the committee.

Both Republican state Sen. Gay Kernan, of Hobbs, and Craig Brandt, of Rio Rancho, expressed concerns over the possibility that private child care centers might have to assume higher liability insurance premiums if the bill should be enacted. Brandt also expressed concerns that the state does not provide specific funding to private child care centers for special needs children but would regulate how the child care centers could discipline a child.

“I think the liability we’re opening private institutions up to when we don’t give them public support is too much,” he said.

State Sen. Sharon Pinto, a Democrat from Gallup, expressed concern about public K-12 schools receiving funding for special needs children while private child care centers do not but private child care centers would still be regulated under the bill. She argued that having “two funding formulas [for special needs children] is not going to address the needs of the children.”

Groginsky said the ECECD provides coaching and consultations with clinically trained professionals who can support the early childcare educators.

The committee made two minor amendments to the bill. One, introduced by Pope, allowed the ECECD to implement the provisions in the bill by July 1, 2024. A second amendment, presented by state Sen. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, moved when the data collection portion of the bill would begin implementation, from January 1, 2025 to January 1, 2024. Both amendments passed unanimously.

Kernan introduced an amendment that would remove NMPED from collecting data because “they’re already reporting,” she said.

That amendment failed by a 5-4 vote with Soules breaking party lines and siding with Republicans. Soules, a former school principal, asked about the numbers behind Groginsky’s presentation. He worked out some math and said that the numbers, when put in the context of how many children are in school, means “one child a year,” who is suspended or expelled.

“That’s a relatively low number,” he said.

He also said children are often acting out in school because of “underlying things, because of society or community.”

“This bill doesn’t talk about services to deal with the underlying problem,” he said, adding that in Doña Ana County, there are “huge gaps” because of a lack of social services to help with underlying issues.

Groginsky spoke to NM Political Report about the bill ahead of the committee hearing and said the bill is an equity issue because of implicit bias.

“We all have biases,” she said to NM Political Report. “The white dominant culture has taught us to think things about people of color. Not intentionally but it’s very much implicit. It’s very saddening, actually, because that’s how ingrained it is in us over all these centuries. How we think about boys, Native American, African-American, Hispanic boys. We look at the data. Those same populations are not doing well,” she said.

Groginsky also talked to NM Political Report about the pre-k to prison pipeline for communities of color. She said when a child is suspended or expelled at a young age, they develop negative attitudes about themselves but also about school and teachers.

She also said that, if the bill is enacted, the statute would require educators for young learners to address behavioral problems with trauma-informed responses. She said, often, a child’s behavior is “telling us something.”

“Stop and listen to what’s driving the behavior, not assume. The immediate reaction is ‘stop doing that. That is not good behavior.’ A child needs help from caring adults to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” she said.

She said when a young child misbehaves in the classroom, a teacher could turn that into an opportunity for the entire classroom to talk about feelings.

Kernan made another motion to table the bill. That led to a 4-to-4 tie, with Soules again siding with Republicans to table it. Soules then moved for a no recommendation vote, which succeeded along party lines.

Soules said the bill will head to the Senate Judiciary Committee next where “they are likely to have some of the same concerns we have.”

The committee began discussing the bill on Friday but the meeting ended before the body could conclude its debate.