Published Online: August 9, 2011
Published in Print: August 10, 2011, as Half of Texas Students in Secondary Schools Have Been Suspended

Half of Texas Students in Secondary Schools Have Been Suspended

Using discipline records of nearly 1 million Texas middle and high school students that cover much of the last decade, researchers found that more than half of them were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grades, that the punishments were applied unevenly among students of different races, abilities, and schools, and that students disciplined with these methods were more likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school than students who were not punished in the same way.

The study, unveiled last month by the Council of State Governments Justice Center in Bethesda, Md., and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, involved the discipline and criminal records of all Texas students who were 7th graders in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and tracked them through one year past the date when they would have graduated with their original class.

In the study, “Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement,” researchers found that among the half a million students suspended or expelled at least once, only 3 percent of those actions were for behavior Texas law requires be punished that way. The rest were at the discretion of school officials.

Study Implications

Although the study involved just one state, the authors argue it has implications for the rest of the country because Texas has the second-largest public school system in the country and one where almost two-thirds of students are nonwhite.

The goal of the study was to prompt policymakers everywhere to look closely at school discipline.

Are We Too Strict?

A newly released report casts doubt on whether increased suspensions and expulsions are getting the right results in Texas public schools.

“We hope other states will follow Texas’ lead and put their systems under similar scrutiny,” said Michael D. Thompson, director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Justice Center. He raised a key question that he said state education leaders should ask themselves: “Is our state’s school discipline system getting the desired results?”

The study found that the average number of days in which students missed at least some class time due to a disciplinary incident was two days for out-of-school suspension, 27 days for a placement at an alternative school, and 73 days if they were placed in a juvenile justice program.

While the numbers gleaned from analyzing student discipline in Texas may be shocking, thestate’s rate of expulsions and out-of-school suspensions, at 6.9 percent, is lower than that of some other states, including California, at about 13 percent and Florida, at about 9 percent.

One statistic uncovered by the analysis of Texas discipline and juvenile justice records was that 15 percent of students were punished by suspension or expulsion 11 or more times. Those repeat actions make the effectiveness of those types of punishments questionable, Mr. Thompson said.

“Seeing how common it is for students to be suspended or expelled ... we probably can do better,” Mr. Thompson said. The study also raises concerns about how nearly half the students disciplined 11 or more times also were connected to the Texas juvenile-justice system, he said.

In addition, at schools within Texas with similar demographics, the use of the punishments varied widely, “indicating, I think, that it’s possible by relying less on suspensions and expulsions to reduce juvenile justice involvement and improve academic performance,” he said.

A new initiative launched during the same week the study was released by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder targets school discipline policies that push children into the juvenile-justice system for crimes and rule-breaking on campus—and keep them from pursuing their education.

The Texas Education Agency, which helped the researchers match students’ school discipline and juvenile-justice records, said the report highlighted some important weaknesses in Texas schools.

But whether the report triggers individual schools to look at their discipline systems or drive policy at the legislative level is an open question. “No one wants a dropout,” said Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the agency. In particular, if students’ punishment entails being sent to an alternative setting or juvenile-justice setting, school districts need to be sure the teaching at those schools is high quality, she said.

“School districts need to take a closer look at the level of instruction that’s taking place at these alternative settings ... so when [students] are released back to districts they’re not behind academically and they’re not frustrated,” she said, triggering a cycle of misbehavior that sends a student back to an alternate settings.

In recent years, Texas has taken steps to address the way students are disciplined, and the report’s authors said lawmakers and Gov. Rick Perry were supportive of their work.

The Texas legislature has changed some state laws pertaining to punishing students. For example, “persistent misbehavior” is no longer a reason for expulsion and school districts are now required to consider mitigating factors such as self-defense and a student’s disability before making a disciplinary decision.

At the same time, other behavior violations have been added to the list of things for which school districts must or can punish students, including bullying and sexting.

Discipline Disparities

Some groups of students were more vulnerable to suspension or expulsion than others.

For example, 75 percent of African-American students were expelled or suspended, compared to 50 percent of white students.

Also, 75 percent of students with disabilities were suspended or expelled, compared with 55 percent of students without a disability. Students classified as having an emotional disability were more likely to be suspended or expelled, while students with autism or mental retardation were less likely than students without disabilities to be punished the same way.

The report didn’t make specific policy recommendations, but noted the gradual ramping up of school discipline policy, triggered in part by school shootings in the 1990s.

Vol. 30, Issue 37, Page 9

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