Teachers push for bills they say will address student violence through discipline
For the past few years, Las Vegas elementary school teacher Kristan Nigro said she has dealt with extreme, and at times violent, student behavior. In one incident, a student acted out, trashed her classroom and hit a classmate in the face with a book. That same student later threw a pair of scissors at her and just missed her face.
In both of these incidents, Nigro said the student received little to no discipline, which enabled that student to continue being violent toward her and their classmates.
“Every single day we lived in fear,” Nigro said.
Nigro told lawmakers at a Thursday education committee meeting that her story is an example of the “complete failure” of a 2019 bill that critics say has handcuffed educators from disciplining students and created safety issues for educators like Nigro.
“It's not working, and there's no accountability,” Nigro said of that bill, AB168. “It's not fair that a student can walk into a classroom and be violent and disruptive without any consequences.”
Nigro was one of several educators from across the state who testified in support of two bills, AB285 and AB194, that would do away some of the restrictions on exclusionary disciplinary practices such as suspensions and expulsions put in place in 2019. Many of the educators who testified have experienced similar violent incidents.
East Las Vegas kindergarten teacher Jessica Jones got emotional as she shared her challenges with aggressive students who have been violent toward her and their classmates.
“When children feel unsafe in school, they can't focus, their attendance and their grades begin to drop,” Jones said. “The same thing occurs with staff when educators feel unsafe. They cannot focus on teaching or supporting our students.”
The bills come nearly a year after a Clark County high school teacher was brutally attacked by a student. Since then, groups including the Nevada State Education Association, the Clark County Education Association (CCEA) and Gov. Joe Lombardo pushed for the ‘most onerous sections’ of the law to be repealed.
“This legislation was passed with the right intentions, but four years later the lack of resources and proper implementation has only contributed to the crisis of violence in our schools today,” CCEA President Marie Neisess said. “We believe these changes need to be made.”
Lombardo and GOP senators are also working on two separate bills that make changes to the 2019 law.
But some community groups are cautioning lawmakers against removing protections intended to keep kids in schools and prevent them from falling into the criminal justice system.
Behind the push for restorative justice
In 2019, lawmakers passed AB168, a bill intended to reform student disciplinary practices in order to address the disproportionate rates of suspensions and expulsions affecting students of color. According to discipline data from the Nevada Department of Education, during the 2021-22 school year, Black students made up 12 percent of enrollment, and 38 percent of expulsions. In comparison, white students made up close to 30 percent of student enrollment and almost 11 percent of expulsions.
The supporters of AB168 hoped to change these trends by requiring schools to provide a plan of action based on restorative justice principles — nonpunitive interventions and support to improve student behaviors — before expelling students, with certain exceptions. It also prohibits the permanent expulsion of a pupil who is not more than 10 years of age, under most circumstances. Additionally, AB168 prohibits students from being suspended or expelled solely based on attendance.
The bill also removed language that said any student must be suspended, expelled or temporarily placed in an alternative school setting for battery against a school employee or selling or distributing drugs, and permanently expelled for a second occurance of these infractions.
While well-meaning, Assemblywoman Angie Taylor (D-Reno), who's sponsoring this year’s AB285, said the 2019 restorative justice bill has caused unintended challenges.
“The bottom line is that our schools and people in our schools are suffering and something needs to be done,” Taylor, a former Washoe County School District trustee, said.
AB285 would remove restorative justice requirements for public schools. Instead Taylor is proposing schools establish plans of progressive discipline based on restorative justice. It also removes the requirement that schools present a plan of restorative justice before removing a student from a classroom or school, or suspending or expelling a student.
Taylor is looking to add language to her existing bill that says schools must provide their discipline plans within 48-hours of a students’ removal or suspension, and that allows school districts and schools to consider reinstating students after at least one year of removal.
“We don't want to send kids home and forget about them,” Taylor said. “We do want them to be restored and have an opportunity for restorative practices to occur in whatever way is appropriate based upon the level of those infractions.”
A second bill led by Torres and other sponsors permits the “suspension, expulsion or permanent expulsion of a pupil of any age who commits a battery or assault against” a school employee or fellow student while on school property. That includes students with a disability.
Existing law only allows for the “suspension and expulsion”of students in those incidents. The law also prevents schools from permanently expelling students younger than 11 in certain circumstances.
The bill would allow school officials to permanently expel students who are at least 11 years old for selling or distributing any controlled substance while on school property.
“I think that there's still a lot of work that we could do around restorative justice policy, but if I am being abundantly honest, I think this legislation isn't really about restorative justice,” Torres said. “This is looking at specifically the tools that administrators have to keep their campuses safe.”
Nevada’s two largest school districts, the Clark and Washoe County school districts, said Thursday they are in favor of both bills.
"CCSD supports efforts to educate our children safely in the classroom,” the district said in an emailed statement. “While some students require more attention than others, educators must be given the tools to remove disruptions from the classroom so learning and safety remain paramount."
A separate bill by Lombardo was released Friday and contains language rolling back restrictions on suspensions and expulsions for students who commit battery against a school employee or selling and distributing drugs. It also includes provisions that enable principals to restrict staff’s ability to temporarily remove students, and would remove requirements that students are allowed to return to school if they don’t get a conference within three days of their removal if principals determine a student is still a threat and their superintendent has authorized an extension.
But some opponents of the bills heard Thursday questioned what these changes would mean for certain students that the restorative justice policies were intended to protect from falling into the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” which refers to practices that push kids out of school and into the criminal justice system.
“When these kids get expelled and they have no place to go, guess where they're gonna go: to the juvenile justice system, and that's where we're going to be dealing with that,” said John Piro with the Clark County Public Defender’s Office. “That's an expensive place that doesn't have a lot of good solutions.”
Others said they felt the restorative justice bill wasn’t implemented correctly and is being scapegoated as schools continue to struggle with staff shortages, leaving many unable to help their students academically, socially and mentally — especially those struggling coming out of the pandemic.
“When students do experience disciplinary challenges, there's a lack of personnel to support them. There's a lack of responsiveness from leaders to support both families and students. That's not a legislative issue. That's an implementation issue,” said Tonya Walls, founder of Code Switch: Restorative Justice for Girls of Color.
Samuel Song, a school psychologist, UNLV professor and researcher in school violence and restorative justice, said AB194 will harm students from families of color, students from families with lower socioeconomic status, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students.
“This is not the right move,” Song said. “It's educational malpractice, it is inhumane and it is not does not solve the problem.”
Taylor said neither she nor teachers want children to be out of the classroom, but they do want the classroom and teachers to be safe, and she’s open to finding a balance between these concerns.