School Climate & Safety

Ban On Suspensions for Young Students Voted Down by Houston School Board

By Denisa R. Superville — November 16, 2015 3 min read
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Cross posted from District Dossier.

As many school districts move to review—and in some cases end—out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for their youngest students, the Houston school district last week voted against a proposal that would have banned suspending children in pre-K-2nd grade.

Instead, the school board approved a new policy on first reading that would make suspensions and expulsions the last resort for young students and calls for training staff in de-escalation techniques and in creating positive classroom environments.

But that policy fell short of one initially backed by Terry Grier, the district’s soon-to-retire superintendent. That proposal would have banned, in most cases, suspensions and expulsions for pre-K through 2nd grade students and made suspensions a “last resort” for students in 3rd through 5th grades. That policy also supported staff training.

“We understand better now than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children,” Superintendent Grier said in a statement released before the board considered the new discipline policy. “We must take a hard look at how we are handling these issues to ensure we’re not contributing to an already stressful situation for these students.”

Of the 2,673 reported disciplinary incidents for students in pre-K through 2nd grade in the 2014-15 school year, 87 percent involved students who were economically disadvantaged, at-risk, or both, the district said.

And while African-American students accounted for 25 percent of the district’s enrollment, they made up 70 percent of the reported discipline incidents in pre-K through 2nd grade. Eight-four percent of the students involved in those incidents were boys, the district said.

According to a recent report on exclusionary discipline practices by Texas Appleseed, the Houston school district had the sixth-highest combination of out-of-school suspensions and in-school suspensions for pre-k through elementary school students in the 2013-14 school year. The highest rates were in the Aldine, Waco, Fort Worth, Killeen and Alief school districts.

The Houston Chronicle reported that while area school districtshave reviewed their disciplinary policies they have also not banned out-of-school suspensions.

In recent years, a number of school districts have refined their school discipline policies in response to disparities and to reduce the time that those children spend out of the classroom. They include the Miami-Dade, Los Angeles, and Seattle school districts. (The details of each district’s policy are different. The Seattle policy relating to its youngest students, for example, is a one-year moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for disruptive conduct, rule-breaking, and disobedience.)

Minneapolis also recently announced that it was “suspending suspensions” of its youngest students, in pre-K through 5th grade, for non-violent infractions and would work instead on positive engagement strategies. Last year, the district eliminated suspensions for those in pre-K through 1st grade, though some of those students were sent home during the year, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. A principal on special assignment and a small team are working on increasing classroom engagement.

While the districts that have eliminated suspensions have garnered praise for their efforts, some teachers have argued that by removing the ability to suspend unruly students, districts are taking away an important classroom management tool.

The Los Angeles Times reported this month that some teachers there felt that they did not have the support and training they need to effectively implement the district’s new disciplinary policies that had banned suspensions for “willful defiance” and instead focus on restorative justice practices. To be clear, the teachers are not against the new approach.

Under Houston’s new policy, which still has to go through a second reading, there will be annual classroom-management training, equity training, and other efforts around fostering positive school climate. Principals will also be responsible for keeping track of their building discipline data, creating plans to improve school climate, reducing misbehavior, and addressing inequities.

Image source: “Suspended Childhood: An Analysis of Exclusionary Discipline Practices of Texas’ Pre-K and Elementary School Students” by Texas Appleseed.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.