Editorial: Texas must do more to end suspensions of youngest students

Just two years ago, Austin schools issued 321 suspensions to the district’s youngest students, those in prekindergarten through second grade, sometimes over infractions as small as using rude language or leaving the classroom without permission. Those numbers included 288 out-of-school suspensions and 33 in-school suspensions.

This year, Austin had just eight out-of-school suspensions for that age group, and fewer than five in-school suspensions, according to preliminary Austin school district figures.

That’s a commendable improvement, thanks to changes in district policy and state law allowing suspensions of the youngest students only when a firearm, act of violence or substance abuse is involved.

However, as the American-Statesman’s Julie Chang recently reported, some Central Texas districts still suspend these students at concerning rates, continuing a disproven practice that disproportionately burdens boys, African-American and Hispanic students, and those with learning disabilities. Even in districts with falling suspension numbers, the job is far from done; the need for more counseling and mental health support in schools is undeniable.

RELATED: Central Texas suspensions of young students raise concerns

We urge the Legislature, which took an important first step last year in curbing the use of suspensions for the youngest students, to press the issue further next session. Lawmakers should empower the Texas Education Agency to hold districts accountable when they misuse their suspension tool. They should also create a central resource for training and supporting teachers who are dealing with difficult students in the classroom.

Studies have shown yanking kids out of class for disciplinary reasons doesn’t work. With lost class time, these students fall behind, leading to higher rates of academic failure and dropping out. The removal adds to students’ feelings of being ostracized and does nothing to address the underlying reasons they’re acting out. As we noted last year, when the Austin school district changed its policy, such suspensions often reflect misunderstood behaviors or missed opportunities to diagnose learning disabilities, untreated trauma or mental health issues.

EDITORIAL: Suspensions alone won’t solve behavior problems of young students

The law passed last year, championed by state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, narrowly defines the offenses that can trigger a suspension for the state’s youngest students, but House Bill 674 provided no enforcement mechanism. So, the state had little recourse when the Killeen school district, which has only two-thirds as many students as the Austin school district, issued a whopping 571 suspensions this year for students in pre-K through second grade. That shocking figure not only suggests Killeen schools are not adhering to the law, but proves they are failing to help many of the youngest and neediest students in their care.

Children’s advocacy groups are also rightly concerned about the suspension rates for youngsters in the Round Rock and Pflugerville districts. Round Rock has half as many students as Austin but twice as many suspensions among the youngest students: 18. The Pflugerville district has a quarter of Austin’s enrollment but three times the number of suspensions: 26.

Lawmakers must add teeth to HB 674 by giving TEA the power to enforce it. When districts post high numbers of suspensions among the state’s youngest students, or dole out suspensions for reasons not allowed by law, the agency should be able to compel districts to develop and follow an action plan to reduce suspensions.

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More importantly, the Legislature should provide meaningful support for schools seeking to improve campus culture, a preventive approach that can neutralize an array of disciplinary and safety problems. The state already funds the Texas School Safety Center, housed at Texas State University, to provide research, training and expert support to districts across the state on campus safety matters. Lawmakers should follow that model in creating a center to provide similar support to districts on student mental health, behavioral issues and school climate.

The nonprofit Texans Care for Children called for such a center after a student opened fire in May at Santa Fe High School, killing 10 and injuring 13. That attack sparked a sense of urgency among state leaders to protect other schools from mass shootings. But we see common threads between that mission and efforts to transform school discipline. A 2004 report by the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education found the potential for school violence decreases on campuses where problems are addressed early, kids and adults alike are treated with respect and students feel a sense of connectedness to the school — all features, we note, of a school that makes the effort to help disruptive students instead of tossing them out on suspension.

ANALYSIS: Why security measures alone won’t stop school shootings

Austin largely eliminated its suspensions of its youngest students by creating temporary diversion programs within each school, providing individualized instruction and behavioral counseling for up to 15 days before those students return to their regular class. Other Austin ISD programs help all students develop empathy, manage their feelings and learn to resolve conflicts.

Still, there’s room for improvement: The Austin school district published a review last month in which several elementary principals said they need more staff to address behavioral issues, particularly with children reeling from traumatic experiences at home. We suspect other Texas districts face the same need.

All Texas students deserve the same opportunity to thrive in school, even as their needs call for an array of educational and behavioral interventions. It is up to lawmakers to ensure districts have the resources — and the motivation — to meet the needs of the youngest, most challenging students at school instead of sending them away.

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