Austin-area schools praised for discipline reforms as new federal guidelines are issued

Schools need to rely less on law enforcement and more on counseling to keep students with disciplinary issues in class and out of the “school-to-prison pipeline” — long filled disproportionately by minorities and those with disabilities — new federal guidelines say.

The wide-ranging guidelines released Wednesday tell schools that they must adhere to the principle of fairness and equity in student discipline or face strong action if they don’t.

Local civil rights groups heralded the recommendations as a big step forward, albeit a step that state officials and many districts across Texas, including Austin, have already started to take.

Black students across the country are more than three times as likely as their white peers to be expelled or suspended, according to federal Office of Civil Rights data. Students with disabilities, who represent 12 percent of the nation’s student body, make up 19 percent of those suspended in school, more than 20 percent of those receiving out-of-school suspensions and 23 percent of those referred to law enforcement or arrested for a school-related offense. The guidelines point to another study that found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect.

“In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem,” says a letter issued by the U.S. Department of Education and the Justice Department.

Studies of Texas public schools have shown the same gaps. A study of nearly 1 million Texas students found that nearly 6 in 10 public school students were suspended or expelled at least once from seventh grade to 12th grade. Fifteen percent of those students were disciplined 11 or more times.

State officials have taken notice of the disciplinary problems in Texas schools, said Matthew Simpson, policy strategist for the ACLU of Texas. In the spring, the Legislature passed laws to reduce the use of ticketing in schools. In 2010, approximately 300,000 Class C misdemeanor tickets were issued for such minor misbehavior as swearing or chewing gum, Simpson said.

“This definitely shows in Texas we are on the right track,” Simpson said. “Those bills kind of came out of Texas becoming aware of these school-to-prison pipeline issues.”

Police have become a more common presence in American schools since the shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999. The Bastrop school district has been at the center of debate in recent months over what kind of force school resource officers should be allowed to use on students.

In November, a student at Cedar Creek High School was shocked by a Taser when two school resource officers were trying to stop a fight. The student remained in a medical-induced coma Wednesday. The incident led seven civil rights and social justice groups to urge the state Commission on Law Enforcement to end the use of Tasers, stun guns and pepper spray on students at public schools in Texas.

“The Tasering in school is kind of the extreme end of failing to articulate what role cops should have in schools,” Simpson said.

The Bastrop school district was the subject of a separate, ongoing investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, accused of disproportionately expelling black students, among other things. Superintendent Steve Murray has said that a visit from investigators last spring went well, and that the district expects a favorable result. The findings, however, have yet to be released.

Other area districts have made a push to reduce the number of students removed from the classroom for disciplinary reasons. In Austin, Manor and Pflugerville, as well as for students statewide, the number of removals declined each year from 2006 to 2011, according a report by the Ready by 21 Coalition of Central Texas, a collaborative group of youth service providers, educators, government agency representatives and community stakeholders.

In Austin, discretionary removals dropped by 60 percent, while overall disciplinary action decreased by a third, a three-year comparison of data for the first 24 weeks of 2010 through 2012 show, according to school district officials.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvement here over the last two years,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, which has worked with the Austin school district to reduce the number of black students removed from the classroom.

The Austin district is already using some of the strategies suggested by the new federal guidelines, including adding social and emotional learning to its curriculum. Austin recently received a $1 million grant to boost its program, which teaches students to take deep breaths to calm their nerves and includes role-playing exercises to teach empathy and compassion.

Learning to create relationships and manage their emotions can keep children in school, pursuing careers and out of prison, officials say.

So far, schools report positive results from the program. The number of disciplinary referrals for sixth-graders at schools using the program dropped 39 percent during the first six weeks of this school year, Austin schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has said. High schools with the program are also seeing an increase in the number of passing rates for ninth-grade students, she said. The district plans to expand its social and emotional learning curriculum to every campus over the next two years.

Last year, the district stopped sending students who don’t present a safety concern off campus. In the past, students with serious offenses like substance abuse as well as some the district deemed to have “persistent or serious misbehavior” were sent to an off-campus learning center, whether they presented a safety risk or not. Now, the nonviolent students are being served by teachers on campus and receive additional counseling.

“The idea is to make people communicate and see these citations were being used as a way to not really address the problem,” Linder said. “Give these kids the proper counseling and education.”

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