Texas teachers and school administrators could more easily kick misbehaving students out of class under a wide-ranging bill debated Wednesday.
In the weeks after the Uvalde massacre, a Lubbock Republican drew attention when he told his fellow lawmakers: “Not all kids belong in the classroom anymore.” Sen. Charles Perry pledged to tackle school discipline this session.
He echoed that refrain Wednesday in a Senate education committee hearing.
Perry’s legislation would allow a teacher to remove a student based on a single incident of unruly or disruptive behavior. It would empower schools to suspend students for longer periods of time and kick them out of traditional public school for a broader range of reasons, including harassing a school employee.
Perry said his bill comes in response to teachers’ concerns about violence in schools and the number of students acting inappropriately in the classroom.
“Kids are just angrier these days,” Perry said, adding that Texas has a “whole different demographic” in schools. “We just have a different kid today than what we’ve had in the past.”
Civil rights advocates argue that his bill represents a return to the kind of zero-tolerance discipline that disproportionately impacts children of color. They worry the standard for removing a student from class under the bill is too low and would be based on subjective reasons.
In a letter to committee members, education advocacy groups wrote that the necessary goal of providing relief to overburdened teachers can’t come at the price of students’ futures.
“We fear that this will result in mass removals of students, and potential chaos for an already substandard [Disciplinary Alternative Education Program] system that is not equipped to meet students’ educational, mental and behavioral health needs,” wrote members of Texas Appleseed, the Intercultural Development Research Association and Texas Center for Justice and Equity.
Nearly half of teachers cite discipline or a safe work environment as a top concern, according to state data. The Texas Teacher Vacancy Task Force surveyed teachers who said student behavior and ineffective discipline support from administrators contributed to workplace stress.
“Teachers are done, and I don’t blame them. They should feel safe. They should feel respected,” Perry said.
Last school year, roughly 2,400 assaults against a district employee occurred, according to state education agency discipline data. About 60 aggravated assaults happened during the same time period.
Texas enrolls more than 5 million students and has more than 765,000 school personnel.
The state has spent years stepping away from the kinds of strict disciplinary practices that are shown to kick Black and Hispanic children, as well as those with disabilities, out of school at higher rates.
AnIDRA report found that, in 2018-19, Black students represented 13% of Texas public school enrollment in Texas, but 26% of those who received in-school suspensions.
But the drumbeat of school shootings – like the one at Robb Elementary – can trigger a renewed focus on cracking down on discipline.
After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting in 2018, for example, then-President Donald Trump lambasted Obama-era guidance that had sought to curb the disproportionate suspensions and expulsions that students of color face. The Trump administration canceled that policy shortly after.
Meanwhile, a June 2020 federal report found no empirical research in the last decade that directly examined the link between school discipline and school shootings.
Shallowater ISD Superintendent Anita Hebert said what she hears most from teachers is that they want additional solutions to behavior challenges.
“We’ve been living in unsettled times since COVID,” she said. “We’ve got to make sure our classrooms re-emerge from the pandemic as safe and orderly places for learning.”
She described to legislators how her district struggled to find appropriate discipline options for a potentially dangerous student. She said the student showed disruptive behavior and bounced between campuses. According to Hebert, he described violent threats to other students and had access to a weapon.
“Looking at our disciplinary options, we discovered, once again, they were limited,” she said. “Our options need to be expanded.”
Perry laid out how his bill could work before the Senate education committee.
“We’re taking those disruptive kids that currently are probably not violent, but they’re so disruptive and so disrespectful that they detract from the entire learning experience,” he said. “We’re taking those to [Disciplinary Alternative Education Program].”
Under his legislation, after a teacher determines a student must be removed, the educator would have to be consulted before the child could return. A “return to class” plan would need to be established.
A student could appeal removal.
Civil rights advocates often warn that exclusionary disciplinary practices result in missed learning time, lower graduation rates and feelings of mistrust and detachment from school. Plus, they say, this strategy can avoid dealing with the underlying issues for why a student may act out.
The bill would also bar the Texas Education Agency from withholding money or imposing a penalty on districts based on the number of students it suspends, expels or moves to an alternative discipline school.
States must monitor how students who receive special education services are disciplined and whether any student group appears to be disciplined more harshly than others. If that is the case, a school system may be required to use its federal funding to address the problem.
“Funds aren’t withheld - but a portion are directed at addressing the issue of disproportionality,” Texas Education Agency spokesman Jake Kobersky wrote in an email.
Texas lawmakers appear to be taking some steps this session that undercut their predecessors’ reforms.
The state shifted away from certain stringent discipline policies – such as ticketing students for low-level misdemeanors and decriminalizing truancy – in recent years.
These actions came in response to concerns that Texas was sending vulnerable students along the school-to-pipeline, which is often described as how the education system can push children into the criminal justice system rather than provide them helpful support.
Lawmakers also debated this week whether to bring backharsher penalties for families whose children miss too much school.
Among those proposals: Increasing the financial penalty for each truancy offense, lessening the burden on districts to bring students back in a nonpunitive way and re-classifying a parent found responsible for a child’s nonattendance at school as a Class C misdemeanor.
Perry’s legislation would also have Texas schools prioritize submitting information to a statewide anonymous threat reporting system.
It calls for a campus behavior coordinator to submit reports to iWatchTexas for “any concerning student behaviors or behavioral trends that may pose a serious risk of violence to the student or others.”
The Dallas Morning News reported last year that the state has spent $2.2 million on iWatchTexas, a largely unused and unproven safety tool. The system doesn’t adhere to some research-based practices followed by the other programs, such as student-focused training.
It has netted very few tips when compared to other similar anonymous reporting tools used by individual districts.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s office said at the time that iWatchTexas ensures all tips reported from a variety of communities are “integrated and gives law enforcement the ability to respond to threats as quickly as possible and save lives.”
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