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Bill aims to stop the “pre-K to prison pipeline”

“It’s clear that we have a problem. We have a well-built pre-K to prison pipeline that we must dismantle,” Amy Eelkema Baxter told the House Early Childhood Finance and Policy Division Thursday.

HF1785, as amended, would aim to do that by prohibiting the suspension or expulsion of any child enrolled in a prekindergarten program.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ruth Richardson (DFL-Mendota Heights), was held over by the division for possible omnibus bill inclusion. The companion, SF1874, sponsored by Sen. Susan Kent (DFL-Woodbury), awaits action by the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee.

The proposal would modify the Pupil Fair Dismissal Act, which applies to public school students in kindergarten through grade 12, to also include prekindergarten students. Program administrators and teachers would still have the ability to remove a child from class temporarily to handle an issue.

Citing data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, Richardson said that in 2016, an estimated 50,000 preschoolers were suspended at least once. Another 17,000 were expelled from preschool programs across the United States.

“Students in preschool are three times more likely to be suspended then youth in grades K-12,” she said. “We also know that these dismissals are disproportionally impacting students with disabilities and students of color.”

Several people testified in support of the proposal, including Eelkema Baxter, a member of the Special Education Advisory Council, who shared how positive interventions can be used to help students learn to deal with their emotions more effectively. By removing a student from the classroom, they miss out on a learning opportunity, and therefore continue to repeat the same bad behaviors, she said.

“The only way that we as educators can give our students what they need, a free and appropriate education … is to actually have them physically in the classroom,” Eelkema Baxter added.

Rep. Ami Wazlawik (DFL-White Bear Township) and Rep. Carlie Kotyza-Witthuhn (DFL-Eden Prairie) shared support for the intent, but suggested language changes that would give teachers the flexibility to remove children from a program who cause ongoing disruptions or pose a danger to self, others or property.

“I’m concerned that if we don’t have this as an option,” Wazlawik said, “that we’re going to have other students who are losing opportunities at school, when we have students who are showing these behaviors.” 

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