State officials and school districts need to do more to drive down disciplinary action taken against Texas’ youngest public school students, according to a report released Monday by a child advocacy group.
The Legislature last year passed House Bill 674, which prohibits out-of-school suspensions of prekindergarten through second-grade students unless they brought a gun to school, were involved with drugs or committed a violent offense.
The bill did not bar in-school suspensions, which some Texas school districts have used excessively against young students, according to a report by Austin-based nonprofit Texans Care for Children.
“Just as they’re figuring out what they think about school and if they fit in, a suspension tells them they don’t fit in and they’re a bad kid,” said the organization’s CEO, Stephanie Rubin, who recommends eliminating the use of in-school suspensions. “Suspending a young child does nothing to resolve underlying issues, which are always at play with challenging behavior.”
Using disciplinary data that school districts report to the Texas Education Agency each year, the organization said that in the 2015-16 school year, Texas school districts issued more than 101,000 suspensions against students in pre-K through second grade, and two-thirds of them were in-school suspensions.
The Jasper school district in East Texas had the highest rate of in-school pre-K suspensions, issuing 71 to 23 of the district’s 122 pre-K students.
Although most school districts with high rates of in-school suspensions were smaller, moderately sized Killeen was near the top after doling out 880 suspensions to 319 of the district’s 3,423 pre-K students.
Killeen school district spokesman Terry Abbott said schools have been working to reduce the use of suspensions of all kinds at the lowest grade levels since 2015-16. So far this school year, he said, Killeen has used in-school suspensions 702 times against 212 of the district’s 3,812 pre-K students.
Schools disproportionately suspend young students who are boys, black, in special education or in foster care, according to the report. Studies have shown that students removed from classrooms for disciplinary behavior are more likely to have poor grades, engage in further misbehavior and drop out of school, Texans Care for Children said.
Rubin fears school districts that frequently suspend students will rely more heavily on in-school suspensions, which are still allowed under the new law.
“There needs to be more exploration of what kinds of training and supports are available, in particular to smaller rural districts,” Rubin said. “It’s important to look at school codes of conduct. Some have very zero-tolerance approaches, and others have much more supportive school environments.”
Some of the state’s largest school districts — including Houston, Dallas, El Paso and Austin — received positive marks from the organization for not only having low suspension rates but for eliminating the use of out-of-school suspensions on the district’s youngest students before HB 674 became law.
Six years ago, the Austin school district began implementing an alternative to suspensions and expulsions through social emotional learning, a curriculum that teaches children to self-regulate, verbalize their issues, learn empathy and get along better with others. Three years ago, the district started training in a specific way to help children who have experienced trauma.
In 2015-16, Austin reported 18 pre-K suspensions out of more than 4,800 students, one of the lowest rates in the state. The district had 351 suspensions in pre-K through second grade that year.
“We believe the decrease is a direct result of support our students receive from AISD teachers, counseling staff and administrators,” said Edmund Oropez, Austin district’s chief officer of teaching and learning.
Other recommendations from Texans Care for Children included better data reporting, as well as:
• Training teachers, staff and local child care centers on alternative behavioral management practices.
• Ensuring districts are providing young students with special education services if they need it.
• Investing more in school counselors.
• Strengthening the state’s Early Childhood Intervention program, which helps babies and toddlers with disabilities and developmental delays to receive therapies and support.