School Climate & Safety

Half of Texas’ Students Have Been Suspended, Study Finds

July 19, 2011 6 min read
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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 Tuesday 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 all of 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 of the half a million times students were suspended or expelled, only 3 percent of those suspensions or expulsions were for behavior Texas law requires be punished that way. The rest were at the discretion of school officials.

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.

Although the study involved just one state, the authors argue that 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.

“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 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 on 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, the state’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.

Repeat Offenders

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. Also, the study raises concerns about how nearly half the students disciplined 11 or more times also were in contact with the Texas juvenile justice system, raising the specter of the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline.

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.

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.

“It can be painful to look at numbers that aren’t flattering,” said Suzanne Marchman, a spokeswoman for the agency. 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 drop out,” Ms. Marchman said. “It brings up that dialogue: How can we address this issue at hand?”

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 when [students are] punished 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 one of those alternate settings.

However, the agency also wanted to offer one cautionary note about interpreting the study.

“It gives the impression that 60 percent of the students in Texas are criminals or badly behaved,” Ms. Marchman said. But because of discrepancies in how punishment is administered between schools and districts, some students might be suspended for an infraction such as wearing flip flops or tank tops on the first offense while another school might give students several chances first.

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 Legislative Budget Board recently examined six school districts’ disciplinary practices, and the Texas legislature has changed some state laws pertaining to punishing students. For example, “persistent misbehavior” is no longer a reason for expulsion; school districts are now required to consider mitigating factors such as self-defense and a student’s disability before making a disciplinary decision; and the state education department had to create minimum standards for the disciplinary alternative education programs students are required to attend.

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 sexting and bullying.

Also recently, the state has begun offering training to districts interested in learning about positive discipline methods, and a pilot program this year is using statewide data to document student achievement and measure the effectiveness of specific professional development programs and activities.

Discipline Disparities

Some groups of students were more vulnerable to suspension or expulsion than others, the study found.

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 disturbance 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 toughening of school discipline policies nationwide, triggered in part by a spate of school shootings in the 1990s. The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act requires schools that accept federal money to expel students for one year if they bring a weapon to school.

A few years later, many school districts started adopting zero-tolerance discipline policies toward drugs, alcohol, and violent behavior. Some 79 percent of schools had these policies in place by 1997. While expulsion for some students means attending an alternative school, as it does in Texas, in some states, students are simply out of school altogether as they serve their punishment term.

An American Psychological Association study in 2006 found that zero-tolerance policies may negatively affect academic outcomes and increase the chances of a student dropping out.

While Mr. Thompson said the Texas study isn’t strictly focused on the zero-tolerance discipline, that practice is part of a larger discussion about student discipline policy.

“We look forward to launching a national project to identify policy strategies ... to get better outcomes for these kids,” he said.

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Half of Texas’ Students Have Been Suspended, Study Finds

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