Central Texas suspensions of young students raise concerns


Highlights

State lawmakers passed a law last year that limited the use of suspensions in pre-K through second grade.

About half of Central Texas school districts reported suspending no young learners this past school year.

The Killeen district suspended young learners more than 500 times this past year.

A year after Texas lawmakers prohibited schools from suspending most young students, some Central Texas districts are still using the practice, including one that reported a surprisingly high 571 suspensions in the 2017-18 school year.

Starting last fall, school officials could no longer suspend students in prekindergarten through second grade except in a few narrow cases — if a student brings a gun to school, commits a violent offense or is involved with drugs or alcohol.

Advocates for the change warned that suspensions caused students to fall behind in their classwork, to be disciplined more in the long run and to be ostracized by their peers.

According to data obtained from 15 Central Texas school districts in April and May, nearly half did not use out-of-school suspensions in pre-K through second grade in the most recent school year, while Austin, Leander, Georgetown, Manor and Hutto used out-of-school suspensions up to nine times.

Hays, Pflugerville and Round Rock used them up to 26 times, a rate Texans Care for Children and Texas Appleseed, organizations that advocate for limiting suspensions of young students, consider to be too high.

However, the moderately sized Killeen school district, which has had one of the highest suspension rates in the state, reported using out-of-school suspensions 571 times in pre-K through second grade in the past school year. District officials said 91 of the suspensions fell within the exceptions of the law but could not provide reasons for the vast majority of the suspensions.

Advocacy groups and state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, who wrote the anti-suspension legislation, fear that the Killeen school district is violating the law.

“That is a staggering number,” Johnson said. “By their own explanations, they’re saying there were 460-some-odd violations of state law that occurred in their district last year. By their own explanation, these are suspensions that don’t fall within the law’s exceptions, and I think that certainly bears explanation.”

Killeen officials said they haven’t received any concerns about violating state law, adding that they are reviewing cases to see if they had counted suspensions that never happened.

“There could be cases of miscoding, certainly,” according to a statement from the district. “We will continue to work closely with school leaders to ensure that student disciplinary cases are handled appropriately to protect the rights of students and the safety of teachers and staff.”

Stephanie Rubin with Austin-based Texans Care for Children fears that the Killeen, Hays, Round Rock and Pflugerville school districts, which she said posted “surprisingly high” suspension numbers this past school year, have harmed students with their disciplinary practices.

“One of the problems with suspending so many little kids is they start to think that school isn’t for them at an age when they should be excited about learning,” Rubin said. “The thing you really have to remember is that all these suspensions don’t actually improve behavior. The high number of suspensions is a signal that an ISD needs to implement some of the positive behavior strategies that other Texas districts have been implementing very successfully.”

Too many to count

Cassandra Black’s son Zayden, who just completed first grade in the Killeen district, was suspended so many times this past school year that Black can barely keep count, she said.

One incident involved Zayden laughing in the principal’s face, which school officials considered insubordination, Black said. In a previous school year, Zayden was suspended for running away from a teacher and throwing himself on the floor, an incident the teacher marked as a “minor offense,” according to a disciplinary slip Black received from the district.

“He’s not a violent kid. He just can’t sit still,” Black said. Zayden takes medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“I feel like to suspend him was the easiest way out. They didn’t want to deal with him and … it seems like teachers didn’t even give him a chance.”

Black, who quit her part-time job at Kmart last year to stay home with Zayden during suspensions, said she has explored several options to keep her son out of trouble — meeting with the superintendent, changing campuses, working with school officials to create an individualized education plan for her son and offering to home-school him. But the suspensions continued.

According to the Killeen district, Zayden was never suspended for a full day last school year. Zayden was disciplined five times including being suspended out of school for a part of the day, according to the district.

Rick Beaulé, president of the Killeen Teachers Association and a high school music teacher, hesitates to say his district overuses suspensions.

He said any mandate that comes down from the state takes time to implement.

Many families in the school district also move around frequently, sometimes due to a parent transferring to another military base but more often because of an inability to find affordable housing. Frequent moves can lead to academic and behavioral problems for students, making it hard to compare Killeen’s suspension rates with those of other school districts, Beaulé said.

“I don’t think it would be fair to flat out just say that Killeen ISD is not doing what they’re supposed to do. I think that if you’re going to look at it, you have to take a nuanced approach,” Beaulé said.

He added, however, that the school district could make some improvements.

Zayden won’t return to the Killeen school district next school year. The military has sent Zayden’s dad to Missouri, where the family will move this summer.

Cutting suspensions

Suspension rates have been disproportionately high among Hispanic and black children as well as children with disabilities and in foster care, one of the major reasons Johnson said he wrote the bill to limit the practice.

Nearly half of Killeen’s out-of-school suspensions in pre-K through second grade were of black students, even though black children make up about one-third of the students in those grade levels.

“We’re showing kids that the way we deal with black kids is to push them out, or the way we deal with disabled kids is to push them out, and I think it’s actually in some ways a really abusive system that we’re teaching kids,” said Morgan Craven with Texas Appleseed, which has been working with school districts to limit the use of suspensions.

The Hays school district suspended 12 pre-K through second-grade children 20 times in the past school year, while the Pflugerville district suspended 18 students 26 times. Hispanic children were most of the ones suspended in both districts, but they were suspended at a rate at or below the total percentage of Hispanic students in the lowest grade levels.

Tim Savoy, spokesman for the Hays district, said district officials agree with concerns that their suspension numbers are too high.

Under the leadership of Superintendent Eric Wright, who assumed the role in January, principals must now get authorization to suspend a young student from a deputy chief academic officer and a director who specializes in student discipline — an internal control that will add “an important check and balance to the process,” Savoy said.

“Safety is paramount, so in certain circumstances, we may have absolutely no other option but out-of-school suspension. But where we can, we’ll keep the students in school,” Savoy said.

Changing behavior

In addition to limiting the use of out-of-school suspensions, Johnson’s bill encourages school districts to implement research-based behavior models.

Pflugerville school officials said they’re using restorative discipline, which seeks to help students understand how their behavior might harm someone and learn how to repair relationships.

For the past six years, the Austin school district, which suspended pre-K pupils through second-graders nine times as of May, has used 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.

The Bastrop school district, which didn’t suspend any young learners this past school year, rewards students for positive behavior and has designated class time for students to come together to talk about problems.

Different types of student behaviors are addressed by staffers through a tiered system, and softer punitive actions are taken, such as lunch or recess detention.

“The age of these kiddos is when you’re most successful at changing behavior,” said Reba King, principal of Mina Elementary School in Bastrop.

“The district’s alternative practices promote connectedness and emotional and physical safety of kids and ensures transparency and authenticity in how we handle all of our children. There are definitely other very effective measures to take other than suspending young children,” King said.

The story has been changed to include response from the Killeen School District, which disputes Zayden Black was ever suspended for a full day in the 2017-18 school year. The story has also been corrected to reflect that the disciplinary slip that Zayden received was from a previous school year, not in the 2017-18 school year.



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