Out-of-school suspensions costly to kids, taxpayers

In the 2010-11 school year, 15 elementary school campuses in the Houston Independent School District meted out more than 100 out-of-school suspensions.

Think about that. Most elementary schools serve kinder­gartners through fifth- or sixth-grade students. So HISD principals and teachers decided that year that hundreds of kids under age 12 were behaving so badly, they had to serve a punishment at home.

Worse, HISD led the state with a 19 percent referral rate for out-of-school discipline, far surpassing the state average of 13 percent in the 2010-11 school year. Cracking down on miscreants cost the district $190.36 per student, second only to San Antonio ISD’s expenditures of $202.21 per student.

All told, Texas schools spent about $590 million in the 2010-11 school year to pay for alternative education programs, plus security and monitoring services.

These findings, from a new study by Texas Appleseed, suggest that some schools are relying heavily on drastic disciplinary measures that carry a huge cost to taxpayers – while leading to poor student outcomes, like a higher dropout rate. Dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline,” harsh punishments can put students on an irrevocable path to failure.

“It’s totally out of control,” fumed Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “Writing 6-year-olds tickets, arresting 10-year-olds … I’m on a tear.”

Whitmire, who also is chairing a Council of State Governments national study on the issue, will hold a hearing Tuesday in Austin to determine what the Texas Legislature should do to curb overzealous policing on public school campuses.

“We are all for orderly classrooms,” Whitmire said. That doesn’t justify, he said, “the large number of citations” written to students, requiring court appearances for crimes like truancy.

‘It’s not rare’

Example: A 12-year-old boy in Goose Creek ISD in Baytown got a ticket for truancy but never went to court. When he turned 17, Whitmire says, the local constable arrested him on an adult warrant for failure to appear in court. He was booked in the Harris County Jail, for something his parents didn’t resolve when he was 12. Said an exasperated Whitmire: “It’s not rare.”

Now for the good news: This year, Superintendent Terry Grier renegotiated a contract to reduce the number of students sent to HISD’s alternative education program and instituted new teacher training.

“One of the first questions Dr. Grier asked when he arrived was, ‘Why are we sending so many students’ to the district’s alternative education program,” said HISD spokesman Jason Spencer. “We’ve significantly reduced that.”

Now, there’s a “positive behavior and support structure” to help teachers “handle a problem before they get to the point” where suspending a student is required.

What works?

A more in-depth policy now advises teachers about “which infractions deserve out-of-school suspensions” and which might benefit from “a lighter touch,” Spencer said. “There’s been a decline in the number of citations police are issuing – it’s about half from this time last year.”

With Texas public schools reeling from a $5.4 billion budget cut by the Legislature, teachers and administrators have been challenged to do more with less.

Appleseed argues that the current budget environment creates an imperative to study costly school discipline measures and to honestly examine what works and what doesn’t.

What works? According to Appleseed, Pflugerville ISD eliminated out-of-school suspensions for all middle-school students and created an in-school alternative. The district hired additional school counselors by boosting state aid based on daily attendance.

Not everyone is convinced. Gayle Fallon, of the Houston Federation of Teachers, believes sending misbehaving students to the alternative program helps them get counseling they need.

Conflicting results

“Our alternative programs provide counseling, social services for the family, as well as remediation for academic deficiencies,” Fallon said. “It is a far better way to deal with students with behavioral problems than the practice in many districts of expelling them to the streets or doing a series of short-term in-house suspensions where there is little or no instruction going on and where they get further behind.”

But a 2011 study of Texas schools by the Council of State Governments suggested that exclusionary discipline incurs long-term harmful effects: “Only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated from high school during the study period, and 31 percent of students disciplined one or more times repeated their grade at least once.”

Policies vary by district, and by campus, Whitmire noted, with real but random consequences for kids.

“It’s got to stop,” he said.

Out-of-school suspensions costly to kids, taxpayers – Houston Chronicle.

Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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