COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – A bill to allow school districts to indefinitely expel students has been lauded by teachers and school administrators as a solution to growing security threats and violence, but civil rights groups worry about its potential for abuse.

House Bill 206 would give school districts the latitude to determine when they can expel a student, potentially in perpetuity – and how that student may earn the ability to return to the classroom. 

“Every time we see a mass shooting, the first question that arises is, ‘Were there warning signs?’” sponsor Rep. Gary Click (R-Vickery) wrote in June testimony. “When schools and law enforcement fail to recognize and respond to the warning signs, everyone is outraged. However, current law restricts the ability of school administrators to take reasonable precautions.”

Supporters of the bill, including teachers and administrators from school districts across the state, have argued that existing laws regarding school expulsion do not ensure that students who act violently or threaten others are safe to return. But opponents of HB 206 testified before the House Primary and Secondary Education committee Tuesday that the bill will do more harm than good, particularly against disabled students, low-income students and students of color.

State law requires a one-year expulsion for a student who brings a gun to school, and allows districts to expel students for one year for bringing a knife to school, making a bomb threat or committing a violent crime on school grounds. In similar cases in which a student is older than 16, the district can ask a court to allow permanent expulsion but otherwise, students must be allowed to return at the end of the disciplinary period.

Under HB 206, a superintendent can impose a one-year expulsion on a student who poses “imminent and severe endangerment” to students and school staff, as defined by the district. If the superintendent determines that a student did not satisfy the conditions to return, they can extend the expulsion for 90 days. Superintendents can extend the expulsion every 90 days, with no limit on the number of extensions.

A version of the bill was introduced in 2014, but its reintroduction comes in part from an incident in Click’s district. Last December, a 14-year-old student brought a loaded gun to Old Fort High School in northwestern Ohio. Because the student is under 16, they will return at the end of a one-year suspension – something that doesn’t seem right to Old Fort High School music director Amy DeRodes.

“In education, we deal in restorative discipline, working daily to help students understand what they can do to repair a wrong in order to move forward,” DeRodes testified Oct. 10. “But some choices cannot and should not be remedied in that way.”

But the potential for indefinite expulsion, as well as the broad deference given to school districts and superintendents, opens the door for misuse of power and uneven implementation, testified David Manor, an attorney with Toledo-based firm Advocates for Basic Legal Equality. 

“This bill can be used to retaliate against students, push back specific protests or types of speech, and be used to discriminate against students with mental health concerns,” Manor said.

Click, who also serves on the Primary and Secondary Education committee, said he’s working to develop a definition of “imminent and severe endangerment” in the law. But even with that change, Manor said the bill is “fundamentally flawed.”

Manor and Tim Johnson, senior policy advocate at the Ohio Poverty Law Center, testified that granting districts and superintendents such power could mean the policy is used disproportionately against students of color and other marginalized students, as other forms of discipline are.

In the 2022-2023 school year, Black students accounted for 45% of expulsions despite making up 17% of K-12 students, according to data from the Ohio Department of Education. Students with disabilities accounted for about 17% of students, 19% of expulsions and nearly 30% of suspensions last academic year.

Absent guardrails for what conditions a district is allowed to impose on an expelled student to return, Manor said the bill also poses a threat to parental rights to make healthcare decisions for their children. A district could require a student undergo specific mental health treatment the parents object to, Manor said, and require documentation of that treatment be handed over to school personnel.

“We do have a very real concern that a school would start forcing mental health decisions onto the student and taking it away from the parents,” Manor said.

While giving districts flexibility in determining criteria for expulsion and conditions for a student’s return, HB 206 would require a child be assessed by a psychiatrist or psychologist before to determine whether they pose a risk to themselves or others. Schools must also develop an alternative education plan for the student no later than five days after the expulsion.

But the mandatory psychological assessment gives rise to an invasion of students’ privacy, Johnson said, and is the “biggest barrier” to students under the bill. The bill does not outline how districts may use the assessment, and both Manor and Johnson worry that superintendents may be able to request the child’s answers and clinician’s notes, which may reveal personal information the district otherwise wouldn’t be privy to.

Besides, Manor said, if districts are concerned about a student’s mental health, there are already avenues for accommodation. Under 504 plans or Individualized Education Plans, districts are required to fully evaluate students’ disability needs, which can include comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation. IEPs and 504 plans can also require the district to provide counseling and mental health services.

“While this bill comes from a place of desiring mental health supports and using those supports to assist school safety, we believe that House Bill 206 does not currently accomplish these goals,” Manor said. 

Click said during the hearing that he is keen on working with Manor’s and Johnson’s organizations, as well as others, to develop more protections for students facing emergency expulsion.