This is the first in an occasional series of stories on the changing face of K-12 school discipline in Texas.
In mid-November, Barbara Acuña-Taylor’s daughter, a senior at the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, was suspended from school for planting a kiss on a girlfriend.
Within hours, the teen was told to leave campus, even though she had no prior disciplinary record and had been an honor student at the Fort Worth school. She received a two-day suspension, her mother said.
“These were three friends horsing around,” Acuña-Taylor said. “This was not a suspendable offense.”
Later, the district did a double-take and expunged the infraction from the teen’s transcript. In a state that often shows others no mercy, Texas is loosening the grip on school discipline practices.
“People for so long, in this state in particular, felt like zero-tolerance is what we did, is how we handled things,” said Michael Steinert, assistant superintendent for discipline in the Fort Worth school district. “Then, sort of quietly, but very quickly, that has shifted.”
The attitude change has erupted in a culture clash among school leaders, teachers’ groups and others.
Reformers, including President Barack Obama, are pushing for an overhaul of the nation’s student disciplinary system. To begin, they want state school districts to enforce a ban on suspensions and expulsions of students in grades 2 and younger and a limit on suspensions and expulsions of high school students.
State policy and lawmakers also acknowledge that the tough love hasn’t improved school safety or student outcomes.
“You don’t want to criminalize a kid for behavior that is just about being a kid,” said an Austin spokeswoman for State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, a sponsor of new legislation that now requires schools to be more thoughtful about student punishment.
“Breaking Schools’ Rules,” a 2011 study of 1 million Texas public secondary school students, showed that kids who are expelled and suspended are more likely to flunk out of school, not graduate or become involved in the juvenile justice system. Only 3 percent of the disciplinary actions were for crimes and conduct in which state law mandated suspensions and expulsions. The rest were for “serious and persistent misbehavior,” the study showed.
“It’s mind-boggling,”said Morgan Craven, director of the School-To-Prison Pipeline project at Texas Appleseed, which is calling Texas school districts to ban early childhood suspensions. “You have people who acknowledge that this is a problem but say we’re not willing to give this up.”
On the other side are educator groups and school boards that say schools still need to be able to yank students who are disruptive, even violent.
“People are becoming gun shy and they are afraid to suspend a student,” Poole said. “They’re trying to find other reasons, other ways to deal with students other than suspension, and this is sending a terrible message to the classroom and to the schools that, now this kind of behavior, this violent behavior, is acceptable.”
Houston principals and teachers recently told Houston school board Trustee Harvin Moore to express adamant opposition to a proposal to ban suspensions of students in grades 2 and younger. The educators said the practice was vital to disciplinary practices as a “tool in the disciplinary toolbox” to address misconduct, Moore said.
“We want to reduce the usage of it (suspensions), but at the same time, we have to respectful of the judgment of our principals to do it,” Moore said.
A kid doesn’t show up with a pencil to class. Another kid talks too much. Another one passes notes, or wind, in class. Is it an automatic suspension?
“I can’t imagine anybody doing suspension immediately,” said Dustin Blank, executive director of leadership in the Keller school district. “That’s not a practice that we employ.”
“Common sense tells you, you give them a pen or a pencil and you redirect them,” Poole said.
But, in the 1990s era of tough love, those students were added to a list of suspensions and expulsions, which grew into unmanageable proportions in the Fort Worth school district, said Charles Hoffman, a former assistant superintendent for discipline in Fort Worth. In those years, former superintendent Thomas Tocco implemented a new initiative that directed educators to “get control of our classrooms because things were out of control,” Hoffman said.
One goal of the district was to beef up its student code of conduct, which provided in explicit detail for the types of behaviors that merited penalties, like suspension and expulsion. The document grew in size and complexity every year.
There were so many student suspensions and expulsions that the school district ran out of room in alternative schools that were separate from the traditional campus, and were created to keep those students enrolled in school so they could further their education.
“Kids obediently would go to the office, because basically the teacher would say, ‘I cannot have that kid in my class. I need a day’s respite,” Hoffman said.
Educators were overwhelmed by those students who were a chronic discipline problem, hollering profanities in the classroom and acting with defiance, Hoffman said.
“Teachers are, for the most part, a product of the middle class, that value set, their training was focused mainly on content and pedagogue,’ Hoffman said.
“This was about teachers not having the skills to deal effectively with this emerging behavior with kids threatening and bucking up to teachers,” Hoffman said.
Teachers were told to say to students: “We’re just not going to tolerate that.”
Texas disciplinary rules now require school campus leaders to consider a student’s intent, disciplinary history and disability before a suspension.
The rules, signed in to law last year by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, signal an about-face to a practice in Fort Worth in which campus administrators automatically suspend students up to three days until an official hearing can occur.
Steinert said it’s part of his job to retrain educators to drop “the habit.”
Principals are “not using as much discretion as they have because they’re not used to having it,” Steinert said. “We’re trying to empower them to use that discretion.”
He is also trying to spur an attitude change among teachers.
The district in the spring is expected to require teachers to take a two-hour training session to learn how to look for behavior cues among students. Then act to de-escalate outbursts.
“We know the piece that we haven’t been able to provide yet, which is to give teachers more support,” Steinert said. “If we’re not pulling kids out of school for bad behavior as much as we used to, we need to build more resources.”
Poole said the trainings will help teachers develop better relationships with their students. But he is fearful that school safety will be jeopardized if schools buckle to pressure from outside groups.
“We don’t want students sent out for talking in class, for chewing gum,” Poole said. “But nobody wants to talk about the violent children who hurt others and who hurt teachers.”
Joseph Wallace, at age 4, was a chronic discipline problem, his mother, LaKeisha Wallace, said.
After months of being told to step out of the classroom, sit in a corner or go home, he began to have physical problems at school, the Dallas mother of four said.
“He would soil his pants, even at school, and the kids would tease him,” she said. “It really was out of control and this went on for many years.”
By middle school, he had amassed so many suspensions for persistent misbehavior that he would be often sent home without paperwork from the school. “I’d get phone calls from the school saying, Come pick up him for a couple of days, ‘Let’s try again next week.'”
National and state surveys show that Hispanics, disabled students and African-American boys, like Joseph Wallace, are suspended at higher rates than their peers. In fact, a recent Appleseed study showed Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas led the state in the rate of elementary school suspensions.
LaKeisha Wallace said that while school officials in Dallas got fed up with her son, she didn’t give up on him. A decade later, her strategy is considered a “best practice” for dealing with troublemakers.
She sought medical attention for her son, who is now 17. He was was diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder, ADHD and dyslexia. She said she worked with educators to help the teen manage his disabilities at school.
Joseph Wallace is expected to graduate in the spring from Skyline High School, a magnet program in the Dallas school district.
“This is a kid you kept kicking out of the room, sending him home, missing school,” LaKeisha Wallace said. “But even after all that adversity, he made a decision to be a better person and he overcame all of that.”
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