By Piper Hutchinson
LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE--The House Committee on Education advanced a bill Tuesday that would require behavioral assessments before students could be expelled, placed in an alternative school, or suspended.
House Bill 222, sponsored by Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, would require that a student be administered an assessment chosen by the Louisiana Department of Health before being removed from a school.
The bill also would prevent schools from suspending students for dress code violations and allow schools to use discretion when punishing students in elementary and middle school for possession of a gun or a knife over 2 ½ inches.
Present law requires an automatic suspension for any student to be found in possession of a knife or gun.
The proposal would only allow students in grades K-8 to be suspended if they acted “in a way that is intended to cause significant bodily harm or emotional distress to another person.”
The bill was advanced on a 5-4 vote, with two Republicans, Rep. Barbara Freiberg of Baton Rouge and Rep. Vincent St. Blanc of Franklin, voting in favor of the bill.
“It requires that they assess the students before to see if we can intervene and figure out why they're getting expelled, whether that's issues relating to their home, whether they're safety reasons, whether that's abuse, or whatever's going on,” Marcelle said. “We have too many of our students walking the streets during school time that are expelled and not knowing what's going on with them.”
Alma Stewart-Allen, president of the Louisiana Center for Health Equity, joined Marcelle as she presented the bill.
Stewart-Allen said that rather than having schools take a punitive approach, she would like to see students who experience trauma be assessed and referred to services to address the source of their behavioral problems.
While the bill would leave the choice of the assessment to the Department of Health, Marcelle and several committee members mentioned that the Adverse Childhood Experiences Assessment might be used.
Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, took issue with that assessment, arguing that the questions were too intrusive.
Amedee read some of the questions from the questionnaire to the committee.
“Were your parents ever separated or divorced?” Amedee said. “Do you live with anyone who has a problem with drinking or alcohol or uses street drugs? Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?”
Stewart-Allen argued against Amedee’s interpretation of the assessment.
“Sometimes intrusive is not bad if you're going to get to save the child,” Stewart-Allen said.
Rep. Charles Owen, R-Rosepine, asked whether parents would have the right to opt their children out of the assessment.
Marcelle clarified that parents would have the right to decline to have their children assessed.
Owen also echoed some of Amedee’s concerns about privacy.
Marcelle responded: “I certainly want to protect people's rights and privacy for their kids but not at the cost of a kid dying or suicide.” She pointed out that most parents will not report themselves for child abuse.
Jennifer Kerrigan, a representative of Louisiana Save our Schools, a conservative group, spoke against the bill, raising concerns about the ACE assessment.
“ACE is a study done in Southern California in 1995 and 1997,” Kerrigan said. “It was done in two waves. Kaiser Permanente did it in conjunction with the CDC. This was done on adults. ACE is now extrapolated out to be used for children.”
Experts say subsequent studies have validated the original findings, and ACE assessments are commonly used throughout the United States.