Texas has a history of leadership when it comes to identifying and solving public policy challenges.
Three years ago, data from Texas put school discipline reform on the map. A report called Breaking Schools’ Rules from the Council of State Government Justice Center revealed disturbing discipline practices in our state’s public schools.
It included the shocking statistic that nearly 60 percent of Texas secondary school students had been suspended or expelled. Kids were receiving suspensions at an alarming rate and often for minor, discretionary offenses.
A disproportionate number were students of color, further widening the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in Texas schools.
Since then, significant policies have been enacted that set our schools on a path toward creating climates more conducive to learning and teaching, including passage of legislation that prohibits practices such as ticketing students for minor offenses.
Such measures have helped reduce in-school suspensions by 10 percent, out-of-school suspensions by 5 percent and expulsions by 28 percent since 2011.
But clearly much more work needs to be done. A new report released this week by the CSG Justice Center gives our state a road map for moving forward and ensuring Texas children are staying in school and learning rather than being removed from school for minor offenses.
The School Discipline Consensus Report is essentially a massive catalog for overhauling the discipline system in public schools nationwide.
It is based on more than 700 interviews, spanning three years, during which time the organization assembled a core group of more than 100 advisers in fields such as education, health, law enforcement and juvenile justice to develop recommendations.
Texas should use the CSG Justice Center report as a guidepost for change in several key areas.
First, school climate is crucial to student success. Schools that create welcoming and stable learning environments reduce the likelihood that students will act out in the first place and improve educators’ ability to manage student misbehavior.
This includes embracing alternatives to discipline removals for conflict resolution. The Edward H. White Middle School in San Antonio’s North East ISD saw an 84 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions when it began using “restorative discipline” techniques that bring students together to reach a mutually agreed-upon resolution to a particular conflict.
Second, good data helps track progress in reforming discipline practices and identifies students in need of early interventions. Our state should create a uniform data collection system that identifies students in repeated contact with the discipline system who could benefit from additional services.
The Austin Independent School District uses an early-warning data system to identify these students and has established student-support teams including educators and specialized instructional staff to provide targeted and intensive behavioral interventions to students.
Finally, while police are an increasingly regular presence in our nation’s schools, too often they do not receive the training or supervision needed to effectively respond to problem behavior without relying on ticketing as a first response. These officers’ role in schools needs to be clearly spelled out and understood by school leaders, students, parents and law enforcement agencies, and ticketing must only be used as a last resort.
Continuing to improve our approach to disciplining students is one of the most effective ways to close achievement gaps and ensure all students have a chance to learn, graduate and lead productive lives.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, is chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Michael Williams is the Texas Commissioner of Education and head of the Texas Education Agency.