Keeping Kids in School and on Track
By Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
A report presented three years ago by The Council of State Governments Justice Center showed Texas had a real problem keeping its students in school and on a path toward graduation.
“Breaking Schools’ Rules” showed almost 6 in 10 public school students in Texas were suspended or expelled between seventh and 12th grade. More than 80 percent of African-American male students were removed from the classroom for a discretionary violation, which usually was the result of violating the school’s code of conduct. Those who were suspended or expelled were nearly three times as likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system within a year.
“We were shocked, quite frankly,” said Texas Sen. John Whitmire, who serves on the state’s Senate Criminal Justice Committee and was in Austin Tuesday at a launch of a new CSG Justice Center report, “The School Discipline Consensus Report.”
“We knew we were on to something and knew we were on to something big, but we probably didn’t know how big until we looked at the data,” Whitmire said. “What we have documented is we can do better as a nation because school discipline is broken. We’ve got to stop criminalizing school behavior. … It’s the nonsense of throwing an eraser and getting suspended, a curse word getting you suspended in one district, a dress code (violation).”
During the past three years, the CSG Justice Center convened a 100-member working group comprised of experts in the field of school safety, behavioral health, juvenile justice, social services, law enforcement and child welfare. The consensus report details more than 60 evidence-based recommendations on how states and communities can make their schools safer and help students succeed.
“So much we know and we’ve learned through this report can really be done to lower suspensions just by creating a different kind of environment,” said Michael Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center. “It’s not simply about throwing artwork on the walls; it’s not simply about reading to students at specific times. … It’s more complicated than that.”
Some of those best practices being used to create a better school environment are taking place in the Austin Independent School District. Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz said the district begins teaching social and emotional learning to students in prekindergarten.
It’s “really about the type of school culture you want to create, one that’s positive and has high expectations for all students,” Cruz said.
“To me, social and emotional learning isn’t about (adding) something else (to the school day), it’s just the way we work,” he said. “What social and emotional learning does is help kids understand their environment, what is going to happen and what they’re going to do.”
Michael Williams, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, said policymakers across the country still have work to do when it comes to reducing school suspensions. In Texas, for example, the commissioner has a great deal of authority as it relates to suspensions for special needs students, but very little in relation to suspensions based on race or ethnicity. In addition, there are very few guidelines for how in-school suspensions operate.
“There are no minimum instruction guidelines for in-school suspension and there are no max days,” Williams said. “You have a kid that’s been moved out to the trailer; there are no minimum guidelines for what kind of instruction that youngster gets in that trailer. … That unfortunately leads to many of the adverse consequences we are talking about.”
Theron Bowman, former chief of police for Arlington, Texas, and now the city manager, said states also need to rethink the roles of police officers who are placed on school campuses. He sees their best role as being one of educator, helping students learn how to handle bullying, keep themselves safe on the Internet and stay away from gangs and drugs.
The Arlington Police Department, Bowman said, “works to limit the enforcement role of school resource officers have in dealing with minor offenses that occur on school campuses and increase our role not only in the overall campus security capacity, but an educator capacity as well.”
Whitmire said the new report doesn’t give legislators or other policymakers a national plan or directions to follow to make campuses and students safer and more successful. It’s a guide, he said, that provides numerous examples of programs that already have worked.
“That’s why I ran for re-election this year and actually knocked on doors after 42 years (in the legislature),” said Whitmire, “for an occasion like this to present a work product I know will actually make a difference.”