AUGUSTA — Maine school districts would no longer be allowed to expel students without giving them a timeline or plan for returning to class under a bill endorsed by a legislative committee Tuesday.

If the bill passes, districts also will have to rewrite discipline and truancy policies to more aggressively keep students out of trouble and in class.

“This is a major step forward,” said Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland. “We’re one of the few states where you can expel a student and there’s no option for that student to get back into any school.”

Alfond submitted L.D. 1503 — An Act to Promote School Attendance and Increase School Achievement — based on the recommendations of a study group that said Maine’s school discipline and truancy policies don’t do enough to keep kids in school, and may even lead some to drop out.

The proposal is part of an effort to reach a legislative goal of increasing the state’s four-year high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2016. The rate is now about 82 percent, according to state officials.

That rate is slightly above the national average, according to a recent analysis by Education Week. The magazine standardized the rates nationwide — states calculate their rates differently — and said Maine stood at 76.5 percent in 2008, compared with a national average of 71.7 percent that year.

Getting expelled students back into school is one piece of Maine’s drop-out prevention effort, Alfond said.

About 100 to 150 Maine students are expelled each school year for violating rules of behavior, according to state officials. Except for those who have special education requirements, expelled students do not have a right to any public educational services, even if they move to a different district.

In some districts, an expelled student is given a re-entry plan with a list of requirements, such as counseling for drug abuse or emotional problems. Other districts impose open-ended expulsions with no specific re-entry plans.

Some students miss multiple school years for bad behavior such as selling marijuana, said the Disability Rights Center, which backs the bill.

“It’s a setup for them in terms of failure or dropping out,” said Sara DePasquale, an attorney with Pine Tree Legal Assistance who co-chaired the study group.

The bill also seeks to avoid expulsions by requiring “positive” disciplinary policies, to change misbehavior before it goes too far.

And it would require schools to crack down on truancy.

There were more than 1,400 truant students in Maine schools in 2009-10, said Alfond. A high school student is truant if he or she misses at least 10 days in one school year, or seven in a row, without an excuse.

The bill would require schools to set up procedures for referring truant students to intervention teams.

“If they don’t feel like anyone in the school notices they’re not there, then they don’t think it’s important,” Alfond said.

The bill has bipartisan support. All 12 members of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee who were present Tuesday voted in favor.

The Maine School Management Association, which represents superintendents, and the Maine Principals Association also support the bill.

“The process is pretty scary if you’re a 16-year-old kid. … It’s really not clear,” said Jim Morse, Portland’s superintendent and a member of the study committee that recommended the changes. “I think it is contributing to the dropout rate. … The message should be, ‘Look, you made a mistake. Youngsters make mistakes. We want you back in school and here is the process to get back into school.'”

The legislative committee first endorsed the bill last year, but the bill got held over for minor changes. It’s expected to be approved by the full Legislature in the coming weeks and take effect before the start of the next school year.

The original version of Alfond’s bill would have gone farther. Committee members removed language that some superintendents feared would lead to lawsuits or increase spending.

The original bill, for example, called for a fund to provide educational services to expelled students. It also would have required that schools suspend or expel students only as a last resort.

The current version says the families of expelled students would have to pay for any professional services they need. And it would require districts to focus on “positive” and “restorative” interventions without officially making expulsion a last resort.

John Richardson — 620-7016

[email protected]

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