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Suspensions Fall Out Of Favor For Texas Educators

Christina Ulsh

Suspending rowdy students has long been a popular way for schools to keep order in their classrooms. New research shows that this punishment is counterproductive and is administered unequally to minorities and kids with disabilities.

In Dallas ISD, during the 2009-2010 school year, 25 percent of high schoolers were suspended. That’s one in four students, with much higher percentages of African-American boys and students with disabilities. Just two years later, suspensions fell by half.

So what happened? For one thing, Texas educators got hard evidence that suspensions damage students, without improving classrooms.

“You [are] more likely to become involved with the juvenile justice system later,” said Tony Fabelo, a researcher at the Council of State Governments. His researchers followed almost a million seventh graders in Texas for years as they progressed through high school.

Almost all the suspensions in that period were for non-violent offenses. But the kids who got suspended were likely to be held back a grade, drop out of high school, or get tangled up in the criminal justice system.

His report came out in 2011, and Texas educators reacted. 

Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, has seen the number of out-of-school suspension drop across Texas over the last seven years. She’s been working on breaking public school culture that was capricious in ticketing, punishing and suspending kids.

Most kids, she found were being severely punished for “behavior that when I was in school would have meant a trip to the principal’s office.”

Schools were ticketing and suspending students for “talking back to the teacher, making too much noise, chewing gum in class, falling asleep in class,” she said.

Data suggests racial discrimination, researcher says

C.A. Williams is the director of student discipline and truancy for Dallas schools. The district is trying positive interventions, restorative justice, anything that helps kids feel like they can have more control.  

“They’re not making decisions because they want to be misbehaving or are setting out to be unruly," Williams said. "For the most part, all children want to please.”

Dallas schools now have Friday and Saturday detention, required counseling, and community service options for misbehaving kids, rather than suspensions.

Schools and principals that don’t cut down on suspensions may be running afoul of the law, according to Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.

He found that 40 percent of black high school boys were suspended in Fort Worth ISD during the 2011-12 school year, for example. That’s compared to only 14 percent of their white peers -- a staggering disparity that is repeated across the country.

“The data suggest that there’s some form of racial discrimination,” he said.

School-to-prison pipeline

Losen said schools need to address this discrimination by law.

“If you have an educationally unsound policy or practice, for example, suspending kids for truancy -- it has a disparate impact on black students, well, that’s not justifiable," Losen said. They should change that policy or practice. And if they don’t, they might be violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

In 2013, Texas lawmakers made it harder for police officers in schools to write tickets to children. The practice was part of what some educators call a “school-to-prison pipeline,” which makes kids feel like criminals, and treats them accordingly.

“There’s a tremendous economic loss, so even if you don’t care about civil rights, and you don’t care about education, you still want your tax dollars to be used efficiently,” Losen said.  

Keeping kids in their classrooms – even if they occasionally chew gum or swear under their breath — is the revolutionary idea that may save Texans a lot of money and a lot of heartache in the long run.