Utah teachers want to remove unruly kids from class more easily. Opponents say it could harm students.

The “teacher empowerment” bill aims to give educators more control of their classroom — and would allow them to ignore certain federal disciplinary guidance.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students let out of Desert Sky Elementary, Eagle Mountain’s new elementary school on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. A newly proposed “teacher empowerment” bill aims to give educators more control of in the classroom — and would allow them to ignore certain federal disciplinary guidance.

When South Jordan Republican Sen. Lincoln Fillmore met with teachers last summer, the “number one complaint” he heard was that disciplining students has become more difficult.

“As I would talk with administrators and districts about why they think that was true, what they would often say is, ‘We are so leery of getting a civil rights complaint from the federal Department of Education,’” Fillmore told fellow Senate Education Committee lawmakers Thursday.

So, Fillmore drew up SB137, dubbed the “teacher empowerment” bill. It would allow local education agencies, such as school districts, to create policies that conflict with federal disciplinary guidance — including statements, recommendations or letters from federal officials or agencies — so long as that guidance is not required by law.

The intent, he said, is to give teachers more control of their classroom environments, including empowering them to remove students from their classroom if they are “making it impossible to teach and impossible for other students to learn.”

Dealing with behavioral issues is “one of the top priorities” for educators, said Jay Blain, the director of policy and research for the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. He thanked Fillmore during committee testimony Thursday for working with the organization on the bill.

The bill would also create a $10 million “litigation account” to support teachers and local education agencies, should they face any lawsuits related to policies or actions that conflict with federal disciplinary guidance.

“I wanted to make sure that we are getting districts the backing they need, and getting teachers the support they need, knowing that the state stands fully behind them,” Fillmore told The Salt Lake Tribune.

But opponent Nate Crippes, an attorney with the Disability Law Center, argued that instead of giving teachers power to remove students, educators should be getting more classroom support.

“We can envision a teacher using this as a way to get rid of a troublesome student in a way that administrator wouldn’t be incentivized to,” Crippes said. “Allowing teachers to just kick kids out without running that by an administrator also dilutes the process.”

He added that the kind of federal guidance the bill seeks to allow local education agencies to ignore is often designed to help them understand their federal obligations to protect the rights of students with disabilities.

“We don’t believe this guidance should be ignored,” Crippes said.

The proposal also includes changes to state law that would codify compensation for teachers if they spend “qualifying time” on professional development opportunities, such as trainings, conferences, seminars, workshops and coursework that’s not related to any higher education degree requirements.

That compensation would include expenses for registration fees, required materials, and hourly pay for time spent on such opportunities, the bill states.

The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.