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Fort Worth, Dallas and Arlington suspend elementary students at high rates, report finds

posted on Nov 5, 2015

An advocacy group found that the Fort Worth, Dallas and Arlington school districts had among the state’s highest suspension rates for elementary students.

In fact, Fort Worth placed pre-K through fifth graders in out-of-school suspension nearly eight times more often than Austin did though the two districts are about the same size. And at 5,417 out-of-school suspensions, Fort Worth even outpaces Dallas’ 5,263. Only Waco and Aldine had worst suspension rates, according to Texas Appleseed.

Such tough discipline is at the heart of what advocates call the school-to-prison pipeline.

Children who are exposed to such suspensions are more likely to have run-ins with the juvenile justice system and eventually drop out of school altogether, said the Texas Appleseed’s Morgan Craven.

“These high numbers might be surprising and shocking for a lot of people,” said Craven, who oversees the group’s efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline. “We don’t disagree that when a discipline issue arises it shouldn’t be addressed. It should be done in a way that helps both the school and the child. But school exclusions simply don’t do that. In fact they have been proven to be harmful to children in the long run.”

Black students across the state were more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as white students during the 2013-14 school year, according to the group. Though they made up 13 percent of elementary students, African Americans accounted for 42 percent of all such discipline measures.

Suspending students at such a young age can have lasting impacts that include falling behind in academics, creating a mistrust of school officials and labeling them early as problem children, a pattern they are likely to model overtime if that’s expected of them, according to the report.

Texas Appleseed noted various reports of children with disabilities being suspended multiple times a week because of outbursts in class, including 4-year-olds. The group found that 2,513 children in prekindergarten were suspended in statewide during the 2013-14 school year.

“It’s really hard to wrap your head around what a 4-year-old could do to merit being suspended from school,” Craven said.

Each school district sets a student code of conduct and board policy on discipline issues, usually leaving it up to the principal or another administrator to decide out-of-school suspensions. Such discipline can be levied for a range of offenses from classroom disruption to bullying to assault.

Fort Worth officials noted that they don’t have the same capabilities of in-school suspension or on-campus interventions on the elementary level as they do in secondary schools.

“We recognize and are very concerned that our suspension rates are so high and are even more concerned that we mirror the State and National trend of African American over representation when it comes to suspensions,” said Michael Steinert, assistant superintendent who oversees student support services. Fort Worth is trying to move away from the culture of punitive zero tolerance toward more positive interventions.

Among the efforts Fort Worth uses is the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, or PBIS, that has educators implementing rules and routines that help curb problems before they starts, praising good behavior and intervening early. The district began using it in 2013.

Fort Worth set a goal to reduce the number of students suspended each year by 5 percent. Last school year, the district saw an 8 percent decrease from 2013-14 and a 6 percent drop in the number of assigned suspension days.

“We know that students cannot afford to lose instruction time and we will continue to assist our campuses in developing skills to shape positive student behavior while maintaining safety for all students,” Steinert said.

Dallas spokesman Andre Riley noted in a brief e-mail response that the district has various efforts underway to help improve behavior in all grade levels.

For example, the district is piloting the use of restorative justice at six of its campuses, including two elementaries.

Few Texas districts have explored using restorative justice as it requires a great deal of training and involvement to implement. When a discipline issue arises – say a fight between two students – it requires both children as well as others in the class to talk through what happened to get to the root of what caused the issue. Then they work as a community to find a resolution.

Arlington officials dispute the findings saying the district’s out-of-school suspensions for those grades were lower than reported at 1,564 in that school year. (Though Arlington has sixth grade at elementary campuses, the Texas Appleseed report only counted suspensions in pre-K through fifth grades.)

However, spokeswoman Leslie Johnston noted that last year the district began using the PBIS intervention and saw an 18 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions last year as a result, Johnston said. Dallas is also using the PBIS program.

Texas Appleseed praise efforts to explore alternatives like restorative justice and PBIS but the group also wants districts to create formal policies that would significantly limit suspensions and expulsions for elementary students. The group is encouraging lawmakers to carry legislation that would also set limits.

Currently, the Houston school district is debating whether or not to ban nearly all suspensions and expulsions for pre-K through second graders. The proposed policy change would also make clear that such discipline could only be used for other elementary students as a last resort.

Houston officials proposed the changes saying research has shown that children often display challenging classroom behavior as a result of dealing with some other trauma happening in their lives outside school. They noted that 87 percent of elementary students suspended last year were considered to be struggling financially or were deemed at-risk of dropping out of school.

Arlington’s Johnston noted that the Tarrant County district wasn’t considering a similar policy change because sometimes, a student’s behavior can have a significant impact on others.

“When disciplinary issues reach a level where removing a student from the learning environment is best for the student and others, principals have that discretion,” she said.










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