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Spotlight on the Statehouse: March 20, 2014

The General Assembly this week considered a bill to alter gun-buyer screening procedures and legislation that would review racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions in the state’s public schools. Rhode Island legislators also conducted their annual St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day celebrations in both the House and Senate.


Gun buyer guidelines

Legislation submitted Wednesday to both chambers by the co-chairwomen of the Joint Behavioral Health and Firearms Safety Task Force would stipulate that Rhode Island submit additional information to the national database used to screen gun buyers.

The bill’s introduction to the Senate Tuesday by Sen. Catherine Cool Rumsey, D-Charlestown, Exeter, Hopkinton, Richmond, West Greenwich, and to the House March 13 by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown and Middletown, follows the release of the task force’s recommendations last month.

The legislation would enact one of the task force’s major recommendations that the state begin entering further information in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System for individuals who have been “involuntarily committed in court for mental health treatment and pose a threat of violence to themselves or others,” according to a General Assembly press release.

The bill would also create a panel of mental health experts and law enforcement officials to whom individuals barred from purchasing a gun under this new legislation could make appeals.

“We’ve very narrowly defined the people who will be affected by the change, we’ve protected their privacy and we’ve provided a way for them to apply for relief,” Rumsey said, according to the release.


Minority student suspension rates

In the wake of a report released last week by the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union that showed minority students in Rhode Island public schools were suspended at higher rates than their white peers, legislation addressing the issue was introduced in the House.

The report, entitled “Blacklisted: An Update,” compared out-of-school suspension data for the 2012-2013 school year to previous data from 2004 to 2012. Results found that Rhode Island experienced a “laudable drop in the total number of suspensions,” but black students were suspended from school with “record-high disparity.”

The proposed bill requires the Rhode Island Department of Education to analyze suspension data and calls for school districts with disproportionate minority student suspension rates to develop plans to reduce the racial disparity, according to a General Assembly press release issued Tuesday.

The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Teresa Tanzi, D-South Kingstown and Narragansett, and co-sponsored by Rep. Grace Diaz, D-Providence, who previously proposed a 2012 bill that barred schools from assigning students to out-of-school suspensions for attendance violations, according to a General Assembly press release issued Friday.

“Students who are suspended from school are up to 10 times as likely as other students to drop out of school or repeat a grade,” Tanzi said, according to Tuesday’s release. “While over-suspensions affect all Rhode Island students, they have a particular impact on black and Hispanic children — a problem that is only getting worse.”

The bill would also require that the disciplinary consequences for minor behavioral offenses be limited to in-school suspension.

“It is important, especially now when students have more responsibilities in the classroom, to do everything we can to keep kids in school,” Diaz said, according to Friday’s release.


Saints in the Statehouse

Rhode Island lawmakers commemorated St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day yesterday in both legislative chambers, with celebrations featuring traditional food and entertainment.

State public officials offered opening remarks on Irish and Italian heritage and culture, addressing the importance of both holidays for Rhode Island’s Catholic community and the state’s substantial Irish-American and Italian-American populations, the Providence Journal reported.


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