Texas schools must take back student discipline

01/16/2014 6:21 PM

01/16/2014 6:23 PM

How should we respond to the big announcement out of Washington last week that criminalizing minor misbehavior in the name of zero-tolerance school discipline must stop?

What should Texas do now that the federal government says schools can be investigated for civil rights violations if they continue to disproportionately suspend, expel and court-refer African-American students and those with emotional and learning disabilities?

I say, “Amen! It’s about time!”

It’s big news when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan say school police officers should concentrate on school safety and stay out of the day-to-day discipline of students for minor misbehavior.

It’s big news when the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education announce that suspension, expulsion and court referrals should be used as a “last resort” in addressing behavior problems.

In Texas, there are those of us who have worked for years to stop the outsourcing of discipline for childish school misbehavior to the criminal justice system.

The announcement last week that African-American students are three times more likely than their white peers to be disciplined at school is old news to those of us who heard these same dismal findings two years ago when the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) released its landmark report, Breaking School Rules.

Even back then, it was hard to argue with the results of cross-matching the school discipline and court records for nearly one million Texas students over a six-year period — and disaggregating the data to make it impossible to blame poverty, low income and more than 80 other variables for the discriminatory impact of school suspension and expulsion on students of color and those with emotional and learning disabilities.

So, we have the data. We have the Department of Justice and the Department of Education saying they will investigate civil rights violations if school discipline has a discriminatory impact. Now, what is Texas going to do about it?

In the 2013 legislative session, I sponsored legislation that ended most Class C misdemeanor ticketing for minor student misbehavior in Texas schools and carried the bill that eliminated Disruption of Class as a misdemeanor offense. But more needs to be done at the state and local levels to end the pipeline from school to court once and for all.

I also filed a bill that would have allowed the Texas Education Agency to intervene in school districts with excessive disciplinary referrals for low-level misbehavior, and in those where disproportionate numbers of students with disabilities or students of a particular race or ethnicity were being impacted.

Had this bill passed, Texas would have been in a position to manage these issues before the federal government even thought about stepping in. Politics prevented its passage, despite the fact that it had the support of Texas’ education commissioner and a broad spectrum of advocacy groups.

We should focus on giving our teachers and administrators the support and tools they need to reinforce high standards for good behavior.

In the two years since Breaking School Rules, I’ve led the Council of State Government’s School Discipline Consensus Project, a nonpartisan effort to identify strategies proven to contribute to behavioral and academic turnarounds for children who are struggling.

We expect that report will track many of the federal recommendations released last week.

What we can’t do is continue an overly punitive approach to minor misbehavior that only serves to alienate our children from school and put them on the path to drop out and enter the juvenile justice system.

Common sense tells us that school discipline should improve behavior and academic engagement — not make it worse.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, is the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. www.whitmire.senate.state.tx.us/

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