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Republican behind student discipline bill takes on critics

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin school administrators need to get tougher on violent students, a Republican lawmaker said Thursday as he defended a bill that would allow teachers to demand student suspensions and require principals to report violent students to police.

Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt led off a public hearing on the bill before the Assembly Judiciary Committee. He acknowledged his bill has generated intense opposition — 16 groups have registered against the measure and no groups are showing support — but he said teachers find themselves in danger too often and something must be done.

He pointed to a U.S. Department of Education survey that found 13.7 percent of Wisconsin teachers said they were threatened during the 2011-2012 school year, the third highest rate in the country that year. He also noted the survey found 11.3 percent of Wisconsin teachers said they were assaulted that same year, the nation’s highest rate.

Administrators have gotten too soft on students as they pursue a failed social-justice agenda, Thiesfeldt said. He blamed the trend on guidelines the Obama administration issued in 2014 urging schools to take a gentler approach toward disciplining minorities.

“School safety — it’s not just for kids,” Thiesfeldt said. “Negative behavior without consequences promotes more negative behavior.”

The hearing room was packed with people waiting to speak about the bill. Before the proceeding began, the groups Wisconsin Family Ties, Disability Rights Wisconsin and Kids Forward held a news conference to rail against it. They warned the bill would lead to more suspensions and increase student contact with police without getting at any of the root troubles that spur students to act out.

“This bill offers no additional resources or new approaches to improving classroom safety by addressing student behaviors, teaching conflict resolution strategies, or providing more support for students who are struggling,” said Ken Taylor, director of Kids Forward Executive Director. “Instead it supports the false narrative that students are dangerous and further criminalizes their behavior.”

Under the bill, police would have to notify the school when they take a student into custody for a violent crime before the next school day begins. School administrators also would have to notify the student’s teachers as soon as possible. Both of those provisions are departures from current state law, which requires all juvenile criminal records to be automatically sealed.

The proposal would allow teachers to ask school boards to suspend students if administrators won’t do it and clarify that teachers have a right to inspect a student’s behavioral records.

Teachers also would be allowed to end their contracts without penalty if a student attacks them. Principals or administrators would have to notify police within 24 hours of learning that a student has committed an assault or other violent crime at school or at a school activity if an adult victim or witness requests it.

Nicole Weigel, of Wisconsin Dells, told The Associated Press while she was waiting to address the committee that her 11-year-old son, Caleb, is autistic and that police have removed him from school at least twice, leaving him traumatized. In one instance, he barricaded himself in a bathroom and plugged up a toilet; in another he got agitated after a teacher refused to let him take a break when he became frustrated with a math problem, she said.

“We need to be teaching kids to understand their feelings,” she said. “They don’t know how to handle them.”

Democratic Rep. Chris Taylor grilled Thiesfeldt for nearly an hour, complaining the bill isn’t based on any data or best practices. She questioned why the proposal doesn’t provide money for more aides for special-needs children and smaller classes. She also predicted the bill would lead to more minority students landing in serious trouble.

Thiesfeldt, a former teacher, said he doesn’t care about students’ color. He acknowledged the bill doesn’t deal with the causes of students’ troubles but it does offer a practical way to improve safety.

The bill’s fate is unclear. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos wouldn’t say Thursday whether it would get a floor vote. He said teachers should be allowed to protect themselves and their students, but that members of his caucus haven’t discussed the bill. He said he hasn’t read its specifics and doesn’t know if it’s the “exact right solution” to school violence.

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