BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana lawmakers are working to rewrite the state’s student discipline laws after a Jefferson Parish fourth-grader was suspended because a teacher saw a BB gun in his bedroom during online classes held amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Senate Education Committee backed the legislation without objection Monday, sending the bill by Rep. Troy Romero to the full Senate for debate. The House already has unanimously supported the measure by the Jennings Republican, which was sparked by the suspension of Ka’Mauri Harrison.
Harrison, 9, was suspended in September for six days for violating a school policy banning weapons on school property and at school events after a teacher saw the gun in his room as he took a test via computer. Initially, Harrison was recommended for expulsion, though that later was changed to a suspension.
The boy from Harvey has attended the hearings and votes on the legislation, and spoke Monday. The law, if passed during the ongoing special session, would be named after Harrison.
“Thank you for helping kids my age and kids like me,” Harrison told senators.
His father, Nyron Harrison, said his son’s brother tripped over the gun and Ka’Mauri picked it up briefly while visible on camera to move the gun.
“I just felt like my home was totally invaded, once they told me he was taking his test and doing what he was supposed to do,” Nyron Harrison said.
Romero’s bill would give students and their families more options to appeal disciplinary decisions such as expulsions that are reduced to suspensions, including filing some challenges in district court. It would require the state’s public school districts to clearly define the rules of conduct for students who are taking classes online, rather than in person.
“If we just give everybody the rules, they can learn to follow them,” Romero said.
Students like Harrison who were suspended or expelled for activities during online courses during the coronavirus outbreak this year would be entitled to a school board hearing and judicial review of those disciplinary actions.
“This is a very good bill because it addresses a problem that none of us really anticipated,” said Liz Murrill, with the Louisiana attorney general’s office, testifying in support of the bill. “I don’t think anyone contemplated that all of the on-campus policies would apply to your home.”
Louisiana’s school superintendents organization and the Jefferson Parish School System opposed the proposal. Jennifer Ansardi, representing the parish school system, said the system was concerned the measure creates new paths for legal action and damage awards against schools.
“If you decide to clarify the law and do these types of things, please don’t penalize those that were operating” with the existing policies that had been in place, Ansardi said.
Senators said people have privacy rights that apply to their homes that don’t apply to public school facilities.
“This thing should never have made it to this point,” said Sen. Kirk Talbot, a Jefferson Parish Republican.
Murrill said the attorney general’s office has found at least three instances where students have been recommended for expulsion because of BB guns in the home, visible during online classes.
Harrison’s suspension has drawn criticism from people and groups across the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association. Harrison’s family is suing the Jefferson Parish school system.
The bill is filed as House Bill 83.
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