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Is Massachusetts School Discipline Law an Unfunded Mandate?

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By guest blogger Alyssa Morones

Time really is money. A Massachusetts law requires districts to continue to provide students with educational services even if they've been suspended or expelled. But now, districts are grappling with how to fund these programs, reported the Lowell Sun.

Though passed by the state legislature in 2012, the law, known as Chapter 222, will go into effect July 1, right before the start of the 2014-2015 school year.

The law encourages schools to use in-school suspensions rather than short-term, out-of-school suspensions. Schools would also be required to notify parents of any disciplinary offenses and would be required to submit data reports on suspensions to the state each year.

The law "was prompted by a concern from advocates, lawyers, educators, and others who know that in Massachusetts too many students too often and for too long are excluded from school for disciplinary reasons," said Thomas Mela, a senior project director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, in an interview with the Lowell Sun.

Funding, though, remains an issue.

Many districts are citing the law as an unfunded mandate—that is, though the state has issued this responsibility to districts, it hasn't indicated that it is going to allocate state funds sufficient to cover the cost. Therefore, districts will be left to cover the costs of implementation.

"Superintendents are very supportive of the intent of the law, they believe that youngsters should not be excluded from a continuation of education," said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, in an interview with Education Week. "The obvious concern is what is going to be the ultimate cost and who bears that cost?"

With the law in place, though, districts have already begun planning their programs.

Scott explained that schools are looking at ways to provide social-emotional support as well as academic support.

"Often times in these situations, youngsters who have been excluded need a lot of wraparound services. They need to have mental health services and home-to-school-relationship connections," said Scott. "Districts need to have a program design that meets the needs of those kids."

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act already requires schools to continue to provide educational services to special education students who were removed from school for disciplinary reasons.

Preventing learning loss during suspensions and expulsions isn't a recent concern for schools. In 2012, Education Week featured school-based discipline options that ensured that students continued to learn in school while under suspension.

Discipline policies have also recently been under the microscope. Earlier this year, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice issued new guidelines that urged school leaders to ease up on zero-tolerance policies and to draft and apply rules in a way that is fair to all racial and ethnic groups.

When student expulsion and suspension data were released by the Education Department for the 2009-10 school year, an Education Week analysis found that black students were overrepresented in disciplinary actions.

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