It seemed like a sure thing. Now a Colorado bill limiting early childhood suspensions and expulsions is on life support.

Legislation has hit a late and possibly fatal roadblock — opposition from the state’s rural school districts.

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A staff member works with preschoolers at Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning. (Chalkbeat)

A staff member works with preschoolers at Educare Denver at Clayton Early Learning. (Chalkbeat)

By Ann Schimke and Nic GarciaChalkbeat

Legislation that would significantly limit suspensions and expulsions for Colorado’s youngest students has hit a late and possibly fatal roadblock — opposition from the state’s rural school districts.

While House Bill 1210 is still alive, it’s been assigned to a Republican-controlled Senate committee that has a track record of killing legislation that leadership opposes. The assignment to the Senate State Affairs Committee is a major setback for supporters who believe the legislation would put Colorado on the forefront of early childhood discipline reform.

Although advocates garnered substantial bipartisan support among lawmakers and worked for months gathering feedback from school districts and other groups, a late-breaking push by a coalition of rural school districts sidelined the effort.

The group had an opportunity to weigh in earlier, but did not. Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, said she knew about the bill and was included in supporters’ outreach efforts, but didn’t initially voice opposition on behalf of her members.

“I wouldn’t say we ever supported the bill, but we weren’t taking an active approach,” she said. “This was just one I didn’t vet well enough.”

Murphy said she and some lawmakers began hearing major concerns from rural superintendents as the bill wound through the legislative process, with many district leaders saying the new rules would tie educators’ hands.

“Sometimes we need to suspend or expel young students,” Murphy said. “It’s a tool that’s in our limited toolbox.”

On March 21, the same day the Democratic-controlled House approved the bill, the alliance’s board of directors voted unanimously to oppose it. Two days later, the bill was assigned to the Senate State Affairs Committee.

“I learned a few lessons here,” Murphy said. “I somewhat regret the late nature of it all.”

Although rural school districts educate only about 20 percent of Colorado students, they hold sway at the state Capitol, especially among Republicans. This year, two Senate Republicans who represent rural areas were given leadership positions.

State Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat and one of the bill’s sponsors, said she was disappointed about the bill’s likely fate.

“I thought we had support with all the diverse stakeholders,” she said. “We sat down with (the Rural Alliance). We went through a draft of the bill and asked them what their concerns were and addressed them. I was frankly very surprised where the pushback was coming from.”

House Bill 1210 would curb out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for students in kindergarten through second grade, as well as preschoolers in state-funded programs. It would permit out-of-school suspensions only if a child endangers others on school grounds, represents a serious safety threat or if school staff have exhausted all other options.

In general, suspensions would be limited to three days. Expulsions would be prohibited under the bill except as allowed under federal law when kids bring guns to schools.

State Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican and one of the bill’s sponsors, said he hopes the bill could make it through the committee. He’s lobbying committee members and Senate leadership, he said.

“I think it’s good policy, there’s data there, and this is a good conversation for the Senate to have,” he said.

While some of his co-sponsors are open to amending the bill to meet the demands of the rural superintendents, Priola said he was hesitant to provide rural schools districts exceptions.

“It’s hard to cut out a section of the state on something that should be a no-brainer,” he said.

Murphy, the alliance’s executive director, said she doesn’t think the bill could be amended in a way that the alliance would support. Bill backers floated one possible change last week — involving the expulsion standard — but her board rejected it, she said.

Senate President Kevin Grantham, in a statement to Chalkbeat, said House Bill 1210 and a sister measure that would provide culturally appropriate discipline training for teachers would get a fair hearing.

“These bills include provisions that could have justified assignment to a number of committees, but we concluded that State Affairs, on balance, was the right place to send them,” he said. “People often jump to conclusions about what such committee assignments mean, but I trust the bills will get a fair hearing there and I believe stakeholder discussions continue to take place that could potentially improve their chance of success.”

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign, one of many groups that pushed for the bill, said one of the biggest concerns for school districts during the bill-drafting process was to ensure that suspensions would still be allowed if young students posed a safety risk.

While the bill addresses that concern, he said, “We have more work to do apparently than we thought.”

For supporters, the bill’s passage would be a milestone in the years-long discussion in Colorado and the nation about the disproportionate use of harsh discipline tactics on boys of color.

But some superintendents said the bill wasn’t a good fit for rural districts.

Rob Sanders, superintendent of the Buffalo district in northeastern Colorado, said he’s had young students flipping desks over or trying to stab other children in the eye with scissors. In such cases, especially when other parents are threatening to pull their children out of the school for safety reasons, suspension or expulsion can be necessary, he said.

The bill, however, would give districts the ability to suspend children behaving in the way Sanders described.

Sanders also said Bill 1210’s time limits on suspensions — from three to five days — are more rigid than what’s in the nation’s special education law.

A better solution would be more funding for schools, including for more school social workers, he said.

Chris Selle, superintendent of the Meeker district in northwestern Colorado and a member of the Rural Alliance’s board, said the overuse of suspensions and expulsions is not an issue in his district.

“Is it a situation where the Front Range has a cold and we have to take the medicine?” he said.

Selle said educators in Meeker think carefully before handing out suspensions, and that for kindergarten to second grade students, they rarely exceed one day.

In addition, he said, when suspensions are given, they often help lead to a productive partnership with parents.

Last year, 7,800 preschool through second-grade students in Colorado received out-of-school suspensions and 14 were expelled, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Boys, black students and students with disabilities were over-represented in those discipline cases.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.