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 when a student has committed a felony or is at risk of injuring himself or herself, other students or school staff).
While most in the packed boardroom supported the change — in both Austin and nationally, young black, Hispanic and special education students are disproportionately removed from classrooms — others questioned whether the ban is too limiting for school staff charged with keeping campuses safe and orderly.
“It’s about changing our practices to align with our values,” Superintendent Paul Cruz said. “Suspensions have gone down. It is true. But it’s about moving us to the next level. We can do better by our kids.”
Trustee Cindy Anderson said the district is “long overdue in owning the historically disproportionate overrepresentation” of minority children and those who have disabilities among those who are suspended.
“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.”
Board President Kendall Pace said she’s proud to be in a district that takes steps to make sure policies are equitable, but she raised concerns that had been communicated to her by some principals.
“All of what is proposed looks great to us to those who aren’t on front lines … who aren’t in the trenches, who aren’t digging to see where and how schools run differently and serve different student needs,” Pace said. “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.”
The Dallas, El Paso and Houston districts have passed similar suspension ban policies.
Both supporters of the Austin ban and those who raised concerns about it packed the boardroom, with at least an additional 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 supported the policy change.
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 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.
Those who support the ban said suspensions are punitive and ineffective, leading to higher rates of academic failure, dropouts and prison, pointing to research that backs their claims. Others said the vote was rushed and they feared the district didn’t have plans in place or the resources to effectively support teachers once the ban takes effect this fall.
Rocio Villalobos of Texas Appleseed, the group that pushed the district to enact the ban, agreed that teachers, especially those new to the field, need better training and support. But she also urged trustees not to hesitate to approve the ban. “When people’s lives are significantly affected due to implicit bias, we should have the courage to acknowledge it and do something about it,” she said. “End the harmful practice of suspending and criminalizing little kids.”
Govalle Elementary teacher Sasha Devore told trustees that schools need more help, and said it’s “growing increasingly difficult to remain supportive if we’re not going to get support ourselves.”
“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.”
Labor group Education Austin met with administrators and created a list of 12 non-negotiable points to make the ban work. Among them, every campus will be given a full or part-time position to coordinate and support the new suspension ban. The district has added nine additional staff members to give campuses additional support in preparation for the ban.