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Fort Worth, Houston ISD send more students to alternative education following vaping bill

Texas Community Health News

Some Texas school districts are seeing sharp increases in the number of students removed from class as a result of a new law requiring students caught with vaping devices be placed in disciplinary alternative schools.

In the first half of the 2023-2024 school year, for example, Fort Worth ISD was on pace to send 476 more students to disciplinary programs for substance violations than the previous year, an increase of over 2,000%.

The new law, known as HB 114, went into effect Sept. 1, 2023, but before that punishments for substance violations were already increasing in Texas schools, with a more than 60% rise in students sent to disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEP) between 2018 and 2022. With the increases resulting from HB 114, some districts are removing more students from normal classroom environments, which experts warn threatens their chances of graduating.

“When students are in disciplinary alternative placements, they’re out of their regular school, so they’re away from their friends, they’re away from their peers, and they’re out of their regular classes,” said Brenda Scheuermann, a partner with the Center on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. “So it’s conceivable that students can fall behind in their credits and be at risk for not graduating on time.”

Scheuermann is a retired Texas State University professor who spent her career researching alternative education and behavior interventions. She said zero-tolerance policies such as HB 114 can be harmful to students, especially those who are economically disadvantaged and disproportionately affected by school discipline practices and policies.

Placing students into alternative education programs also increases their risk of becoming involved with the juvenile justice system, Scheuermann said.

The Texas Education Agency releases disciplinary data annually. Because data for the first half of the 2023-2024 school year has not yet been released, Texas Community Health News requested relevant data on substance violations from the six largest school districts in the state and found some school districts projecting large increases in students sent to DAEP while others reported little or no increase. Fort Worth and Houston reported increases, while Austin, Cypress-Fairbanks, Dallas and San Antonio reported decreases ranging from 5% to over 60%.

More than half of the students that Houston and Fort Worth ISDs sent to DAEP for substance violations after the implementation of HB 114 were punished for vaping-related offenses.

Cypress-Fairbanks, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio ISDs all declined to be interviewed for this story.

Different disciplinary approaches

Data shows that the consequences of HB 114 vary by district. In Austin, where the number of students sent to DAEP for substance-related violations decreased by more than 60% following the bill’s implementation, first offenses for nicotine vaping are typically handled at the student’s home campus.

Oscar Adams, director of discipline standards and accountability at Austin ISD, said that the district takes into account mitigating factors such as a student’s history when deciding on punishments. For many students caught with nicotine vaping products in the fall, that meant receiving education on the harms of nicotine and vaping.

“We do believe in providing education first before we assign the student to the DAEP, because that significantly impacts their education outcomes and just their overall performance at school,” Adams said.

According to Adams, incidents of vaping fell by around 25% in the fall, after the district sent communications to students and parents about HB 114 and the health effects of vaping.

Fort Worth ISD, where DAEP placements rose sharply following the implementation of HB 114, has taken a stricter approach. Alternative education program administrator Mark Cerja said that HB 114’s mandatory punishment is an important way to curb a serious threat to students’ health.

“Immediately at the first offense, it's a pretty serious message to the kids that we just can't have these brought to school grounds,” said Cerja.

While he supports the mandatory punishments for vaping, Cerja acknowledged that the increase in students sent to DAEP has stretched the district’s resources and might impact students’ abilities to graduate.

“It’s just another hurdle, you know, that the student is going to have to work around,” Cerja said. “It might not be quite as easy to pass a course without that teacher that they know, their teacher of record, to make it through with a high grade.”

Opting out

Some districts have chosen to opt out of HB 114’s requirements through the state’s District of Innovation program. Started in 2015, the program allows districts meeting certain performance measures to exempt themselves from sections of the Texas Education Code that don’t align with district goals. According to the plan filed by Houston ISD, more than 120 school districts had requested an exemption from HB 114 as of last October.

Districts requesting an exemption from HB 114 typically cite the value of a flexible approach to vaping that meets local needs. Abilene ISD, for example, says that exemption allows the district to provide a “second chance” to students in possession of vaping devices.

Houston ISD’s plan went into effect in January, following a sharp increase in students sent to DAEP last fall. During the first half of the 2023-2024 school year, the district reported sending 640 students to DAEP for vaping-related offenses. That’s more than double the number of students sent to DAEP for substance-related offenses during all of 2022-2023.

Cypress-Fairbanks, Dallas and San Antonio ISDs do not have exemptions related to HB 114 in their innovation plans. These districts all provided data suggesting decreases in students sent to DAEP following the passage of HB 114.

An imperfect solution

Critics say HB 114’s mandatory punishment is a temporary solution that can harm student success, hitting some students harder than others.

Matthew Rossheim, associate professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, says that solving the problem of young people vaping requires actions targeting the industries that produce and market vaping products.

“Students aren't vaping because they don't think it's harmful. They know it's bad for them. They’re addicted, and we’ve got two multibillion-dollar industries who are making products that are appealing to young people,” said Rossheim of the marketing strategies of nicotine and vaping companies. “Punishing kids or making them more aware of the issue isn’t really going to get at the underlying causes of this issue.”

Nicole Holt, chief executive officer for Texans for Safe and Drug-Free Youth, said districts also face logistical problems meeting the needs of mandatory DAEP placements.

“Most of the alternative schools are underfunded and overfilled. The alternative choices are wide-ranging, so some campuses might expel a student, which is never the ideal path,” Holt said. “And honestly, alternative school is not where you want to send students who get caught with vapes.”