The Austin school board Monday night unanimously approved a ban on suspensions for its youngest learners.
The policy prohibits discretionary home suspensions, expulsions or alternative disciplinary programs for students in prekindergarten through second grade, except in cases required by the state’s education code (such as felonies or being a danger of physical injury to the student, fellow students or school staff ).
“It’s about changing our practices to align with our values,” said Superintendent Paul Cruz. “Suspensions have gone down. It is true. But it’s about moving us to the next level. We can do better by our kids.”
Board President Kendall Pace said she’s proud to be in a district that has the right equity mindset and that no one wants to suspend students, but raised concerns prior to the vote, saying “a ban without a plan is actually more dangerous.”
“All of what is proposed looks great to us to those who aren’t on front lines …who aren’t on the trenches, who aren’t digging to see where and how schools run differently and serve different student needs,” Pace said prior to the vote. “It feels at some level that this is a superficial social justice win and lacks the deeper tenets to ensure lasting and real positive, academic and social emotional outcomes for all, especially for our poor black and brown students.”
Trustee Cindy Anderson said the district is “long overdue in owning the historically disproportionate overrepresentation of our minority children, in particular African American students, predominantly males, as well as our special education students, in both referrals and suspensions.
“It takes a lot of courage to say, not only are we going to own it but we’re actually going to commit to changing that,” Anderson said. “We have to at least be willing to take the first step.”
The Dallas, El Paso and Houston districts also have passed similar suspension ban policies for its youngest students.
At the Austin meeting, attendees — both supporters of the ban and those who raised concerns — packed the board room, with at least another two dozen spilling into the foyer and just outside the building. All 30 public input slots were filled about one hour after the sign up opened on Friday to speak on the ban, and the majority advocated that trustees approve it expediently.
Hundreds of students in prekindergarten through second grades are suspended from Austin schools every year. While numbers have been decreasing, black, Latino and special education students are suspended in disproportionate numbers, data from the Austin district show. Of the 351 prekindergarten through second grade students suspended last year, 85 percent were black or Latino. Some offenses include using rude language and leaving without permission.
Supporters said suspensions is punitive and ineffective, leading to higher rates of academic failure, drop outs and prison, pointing to research that backs their claims. Multiple parents and teachers petitioned trustees to approve the ban. But others, including teachers and parents, said families of color were not consulted or given the opportunity to give input or speak for themselves. Others said the vote was rushed and they feared the district did not have plans in place or the resources to effectively support teachers once the ban takes effect this fall.
Rocio Villalobos of Texas Appleseed, and a former Austin district student, said “black students and students with disabilities are not more inherently disruptive and worthy of being punished than their peers.”
“Implicit bias, as well as insufficient training and support for teachers and administrators, especially those who are new, is at fault, and must be addressed head on,” Villalobos said. “When people’s lives are significantly affected due to implicit bias, we should have the courage to acknowledge it and do something about it. Please support our students and vote yes to end the harmful practice of suspending and criminalizing little kids.”
Govalle Elementary teacher Sasha Devore told trustees schools need intensive on-site behavior support, such as an on-site mindfulness room, or more teachers so classrooms can be smaller, “so we can provide these restorative practices in an effective way.”
“Because when the students are arguing the teacher down, and tearing up her classroom and leaving, it’s not affluent white kids who are staying behind in class to get ahead,” Devore said. “It’s my son, an 8-year-old black (gifted and talented) student who is not getting the enrichment he needs, whose mother aged out of foster care to become the first one to graduate from college. It’s my students, who are also black and brown low-income families, who are also trying to catch up with society and break those cycles of poverty. I’m growing increasingly difficult to remain supportive if we’re not going to get support ourselves.”
Labor group Education Austin met with administrators and cited 12 non-negotiables in regards to the ban. Among them, every campus will be provided a full or part-time position to coordinate and support the new suspension ban; campuses will provide professional training related to non-punitive, progressive behavior supports and interventions; the district will create a committee to discuss, research and recommend behavior supports for the ban to be successful; and each school will start a committee of teachers, parents, students and administrators to create a campus behavior plan that rewards positive behaviors and addresses disruptive ones.
Administrators told trustees they already have added nine additional staff members to give campuses additional support in preparation of the ban.