SantaCruz: AISD suspension ban a positive step; still needs tweaks

We have known for some time that suspending very young children, even those in kindergarten, affects the academic success of students. Numerous studies and experts cite such negative effects.

Yet in Austin, kids younger than 10 are sent home for disruptive behavior. Thankfully, that won’t be the case much longer since the Austin Independent School District school board unanimously voted to eliminate that disciplinary option for the district’s students in pre-K through second grade.

That’s a big step in the right direction — a move that I along with the American-Statesman’s editorial board pushed for in January and welcome now. It’s overdue.

The new policy mapped out by Superintendent Paul Cruz reflects the concerns of trustees, educators, administrators and parents. And it addresses our concerns regarding classroom learning, safety and the welfare of all students.

Though the district’s policy also calls for more training of teachers and counselors, I have reservations on how the new policy will address implicit bias.

The suspension ban, which goes into effect next school year, rightly 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. The provision offers some of the flexibility the editorial board urged Cruz to consider.

Having that flexibility is an essential disciplinary option in serious situations. However, all too often students – typically children of color — are removed from the classroom for minor infractions, which suggests they are being removed for dubious reasons and not behavior.

Hundreds of students in prekindergarten through second grade are suspended from Austin schools every year. While numbers have steadily decreased, black, Latino and special-education students are suspended in disproportionate numbers, according to district data. Of the 351 prekindergarten through second-grade students suspended last year, 85 percent were black or Latino. Some of those suspensions were for using rude language and leaving without permission.

Currently, the district’s teachers receive some cultural proficiency training. But I’m encouraged by the new policy’s call for more training and the addition of several members to the district’s central team of over 70 specialists. The policy complements the district’s social and emotional learning programs, which are practiced in a majority of classrooms, as well as mindful and restorative practices, which offer designated spaces on some campuses where a student can continue to receive educational instruction while getting help for behavioral issues.

But how will the district measure cultural competence? Or better put: How will the district determine how much training is enough for some counselors, teachers and principals to address implicit bias?

The lack of student “peace areas” is another problem.

As the editorial board has written: “If one of the goals for Cruz and other educators is to close the gap on these disparities, then a closer look must be taken at the real causes behind these high number of suspensions, which can be something as simple as a teacher being unfamiliar with a child’s culture or as complex as a child acting out because of underlying social, emotional issues or learning disabilities.”

Let’s be frank: Implicit bias has a large hand in the issue, as well.

It’s what is at play when educators — sometimes knowingly or unknowingly — allow stereotypes to creep into their decisions, which in turn, hinder educational opportunities for children of color. Like when a teacher refuses to acknowledge a child’s above-average intelligence because he’s African-American, as was the case for my colleague; or when a first-grade Latina student is said to be dishonest for accusing blonde fourth-grade girls of bullying, because according to the principal, those are “good girls,” as was the case for my niece.

Implicit bias also occurs when school districts put their best resources – experienced educators – in schools already thriving and excelling and placing the most inexperienced educators in the schools with the greatest needs.

Once a school is seen as too difficult, recruitment becomes challenging and the children at the school pay the price. The outcome is worse for many children pigeonholed as bad students; they carry the heaviest burden, in some cases, for their entire lives.

Regrettably, too often are the scenarios in which children are misdiagnosed, misunderstood or labeled by schools. Such factors invariably lead to unjustified suspensions without ever resolving the needs of the student. And when unjust suspensions and expulsions are overused, students are at substantially greater risk of dropping out, experts say. Dropping out of school increases the likelihood of later criminal misconduct.

I applaud Cruz and trustees for confronting and addressing the problem. But, unless the district gets to the root of why students of color are suspended more than their counterparts, the disproportionate removal of children will only continue – perhaps by the hands of the same educators. Except now, they’ll be in a peaceful place down the hall.

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