Testimony on LD 1503: An Act to Promote School Attendance and Increase School Achievement

To: Senator Brian Langley, Chair

Representative David Richardson, Chair

Members of the Education Committee

From: Gail Marshall, Mount Desert, Maine

Re: LD 1503, An Act to Promote School Attendance and Increase School Achievement

My experiences relevant to this bill include the following:

I am serving my ninth year as a school board member in the Mount Desert Island school system.

I am a member of our Legislative Subcommittee.

I have served as chair of our high school board for two years.

I have both chaired and participated in expulsion hearings.

While I no longer practice law, I am a lawyer and have previously served as an Assistant District Attorney in Hancock County. My duties there included work in Juvenile Court.

This bill focuses on the problems attendant to the expulsion of students, chronic truancy, and graduation rates. I offer a position neither for nor against its enactment. While the bill’s overall approach to these concerns is positive, I have practical concerns about several details.

  1. A properly run expulsion hearing contains discernable measures of attention to the facts, compassion for the student involved, and concern for the consequences of both the student’s behavior and board’s action on the student and the school community. While adherence to standards of due process and fair play is vital to the success of the proceeding, an overlay of formalistic trial procedures is not.
    1. Lay board chairs are less likely to be comfortable running a proceeding more like a court trial than a school board hearing. Consequently school counsel is more likely to be called in to conduct hearings. Costs would rise dramatically. For us that’s a total of six hours of driving for counsel even before s/he begins the hearing.
    2. Expulsion hearings are very emotional for students and families. The vast majority of students appear before us without counsel. We strive to make the hearing as understandable and informal as possible to help relieve anxiety. Further formalizing the conduct of a hearing without compelling need will only serve to make it additionally intimidating.
    3. The utility of swearing in witnesses is more than offset by its formality. What would be the consequences of a lie? Would there be a perjury prosecution? It would be equally sufficient and more user friendly to provide a statement at the hearing outlining the need for veracity.
    4. An appeal, or even the threat of an appeal to Superior Court, with the attendant major expense, would likely be a deterrent to many administrators and boards, regardless of the unwise consequences of not acting to remove a student.
    5. Time is of the essence. How would an appeal be heard within an educationally appropriate time frame? Would every appeal be accompanied by a request for a Temporary Restraining Order and Injunction, or would we litigate the underlying issues years after the fact? That would ill serve the student. A school board already should be acting as a review of an administrator’s decision to try to remove a student from school. At some reasonable time a decision of this sort has to be final. It would be far better to put the considerable resources that will be devoted to litigating into regularly training administrators and boards how to conduct fair and successful hearings and how to provide meaningful interventions for students who have been suspended or expelled.
    6. Rather than attempting to ratchet up formality, all parties would be far better served by access to comprehensive guidelines for how to run an expulsion hearing in a manner calculated to achieve the objectives this bill seeks.
    7. While the needs of the individual student are critical, we must not lose sight of the fact that the highest responsibility schools have is to provide a peaceful and productive living and learning environment for all students. We ask you to not enact legislation that would tip the balance of the scales against that duty.

  1. I strongly support a re-entry plan process. At our school, within days of an expulsion, members of our administrative team meet with students and parents who wish to do so to craft a plan for the student’s re-entry to school. However, the preparation of reentry plans for students and parents when neither parent nor child chooses to participate in the development of the plan, suggests that the plan is likely to be predicated on insufficient individualized knowledge of the student’s status and needs, and seems a superficial use of administrators’ time. Instead there should be a requirement for outreach to the student and family and the timely development of a plan once the student and/or parent re-engages.
  2. The proposed school disciplinary policies provisions are generally positive measures, but I have concerns about the language that school disciplinary policies “must...avoid zero-tolerance practices.” While I hold no sentiment for harsh proscriptions, I believe that language may conflict with some of my school’s long-held disciplinary tenets. Because our “zero tolerance” policies are rare, targeted, and do not exist in a vacuum, we seek the flexibility to maintain these goals and practices.
  3. A minor nomenclature question perhaps, but why are the truant teams called “response to intervention teams” rather than just “intervention teams”?  Isn’t the “response” provided by the student, not by the school?
  4. Again, it’s positive to have a plan for reaching out to and engaging students who are truant. But are the “response to intervention” teams required to develop an intervention plan for a student even if s/he or her/his parents are not participating?  Isn’t the student’s engagement critical for any hope of implementation of a plan?

In summary, LD 1503 attempts to address important issues in many positive ways. Please consider my comments an effort to strengthen its underlying objectives.

Thank you.