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Report Questions How Texas Schools Mete Out Discipline

Almost 55 percent of recent Texas public school students were suspended at least once between their seventh and 12th grade years, according to a statewide report released today.

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Almost 55 percent of recent Texas public school students — a disproportionate number of them African-American or with learning disabilities — were suspended at least once between their seventh and 12th grade years, according to a statewide report released today.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center, in partnership with the Public Policy Research Institute of Texas A&M University, analyzed the individual school records of all Texas seventh grade public school students during the years 2000, 2001 and 2002. They tracked the records of nearly 1 million students for at least six years of their secondary school education.

“As much as I work in the field, I’m shocked by the numbers,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston and the chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice committee.

The 121-page report details how punishment at public schools might lead to later brushes with the law by linking the disciplinary history of each student who also had a juvenile record.

Among the findings: Minorities and special education students who caused “emotional disturbances” were more likely than white students to be disciplined. In fact, nearly three-fourths of students in special education classes were suspended or expelled at least one time; 83 percent of African-American male students ended up in trouble, in comparison to 74 percent for Hispanic male students and 59 percent for white male students. Among all students, suspensions averaged about two days per offense.

After being suspended or expelled in school, students were consequently more likely to repeat a grade or drop out than their more less-sanctioned counterparts. They were also more likely to have a run-in with the juvenile justice system.

Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson highlighted the link between school discipline and the juvenile justice system in his January State of the State address. In an emailed statement Monday, he said the report “adds important numbers to anecdotal evidence of needed reforms.”

He also addressed its findings about minority and special education students. “Because the study controlled for variables, we must accept that race, poverty, and other factors influence discipline rates,” he wrote. “Our nation has determined that the rule of law must neutralize such disparities when our citizens seek justice. We must be even more vigilant for our children who lack the maturity and resources to seize the rule of law for themselves.”

What the report ultimately means is that schools’ current methods of punishing kids are ineffective, said Deborah Fowler, a contributor to the report and director of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based nonprofit social justice research and advocacy group.

"The good news is that we know there are alternatives that do work,” Fowler said. She said schools can stop disciplinary problems from happening in the first place with an approach that emphasizes positive behavioral intervention and support, or a “PBIS” model. That allows teachers “to focus less time on disciplinary referrals and … more on the purpose of their role, which is educating the students."

Several school districts across the state have implemented PBIS models, Fowler said, including Austin, Leander, Amarillo and Pflugerville.

Jane Nethercut coordinates a positive behavioral support program at Austin ISD. She said the model was based on praising students when they are doing something right, rather than punishing them when they are doing something wrong — and that it has “changed the schools” around the district.

“Disciplinary referrals have gone down; attendance rates have gone up,” she said, “This is not rocket science  — in the schools that practice PBIS, academic performance has also gone up. We have seen thousands and thousands of hours of recovered learning time.”

She estimated that 80 to 85 percent of kids are behaving but said they get lost in the shuffle of the 15 percent that don’t. Under AISD’s program, they receive recognition for their good behavior. Those that misbehave receive extra reinforcement. And the 2 to 3 percent she said have serious discipline problems go to counseling.

The report’s authors said their findings in Texas, which has the second largest public school system in the U.S., could influence school discipline across the country. In the state, Whitmire said a good place to start was further reform of the state’s “zero tolerance” laws, which require schools to strictly punish any kind of behavior involving weapons or illegal substances. He said school officials should be given more discretion in how they treat students and that the state’s public schools need help in finding “a new model” for school discipline. 

“Too often school administrators are taking the easy way out — instead of having to spend more time and resources with the youth, they just refer them to somebody else,” he said. “They refer them to alternative schools, they suspend them or they refer them to juvenile probation.”

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