Updated, Tuesday, 2:30 p.m.:
At a joint hearing Tuesday of the Senate Committees on Criminal Justice and Education, lawmakers discussed ways to save money and improve the quality of school discipline practices, including giving more discretion to teachers, law enforcement and judges when it comes to dealing with disciplinary violations.
The meeting came a day after a report by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed suggested that the current focus on “exclusionary discipline,” including suspension, expulsion and sending youths to juvenile justice programs, is expensive and ineffective.
David Slayton, executive director of the Texas Judicial Council, suggested that lawmakers consider allowing school districts and judges to defer prosecution of class C misdemeanors committed by students, and allowing law enforcement to “informally dispose” of disciplinary violations, rather than writing tickets for them.
Slayton also recommended “progressive sanctions” before teachers issue a complaint, and giving judges the ability to dismiss a complaint if the student is proved to have mental disabilities. The problem, he explained, is that law enforcement officers often write tickets without having witnessed the offense in question, and base the ticket on what the teacher said.
He said a better policy would be to allow teachers to file complaints with local courts and allow judges to make the decision on how to proceed, rather than go to law enforcement and have them write a ticket. This is currently the protocol when students are charged with "failure to attend school."
Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, said she was concerned whether giving teachers more discretion in writing complaints would force them to classify offenses without being trained in law enforcement. "I could see where we're creating some gray areas,” she said.
Dr. Tony Fabelo, director of the research division for the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center said that excluisionary discipline may also disproportionately affect black students. Based on data collected from school districts around the state, he told lawmakers at the hearing, “we find that African-Americans and students with learning disabilities are overrepresented” and that “the impact of race comes as a factor by itself” when a school employee is given discretion over whether or not to discipline the student.
Lawmakers agreed to look at reforming school discipline practices during the upcoming session. " The question is, what are we going to do about it other than talk about it?” asked Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas
Ahead of a joint meeting Tuesday of the Senate education and criminal justice committees that will address school discipline, a new study suggests that adjusting disciplinary policy could improve results at Texas public schools while saving money at the same time.
The study, released Monday by the nonprofit Texas Appleseed, which advocates for juvenile justice reforms, looks at exclusionary discipline — methods like out-of-school suspension, expulsion and removal to juvenile justice programs — in 11 major Texas school districts.
The study uses district data about discipline referral rates, districts' spending data on various discipline methods, studies on various alternative discipline methods, and data about average costs for these alternatives. Its findings suggest that districts spend more money on exclusionary programs and get lagging results when compared with alternative discipline techniques designed to keep students in their schools and address social and emotional issues underlying most discipline problems.
The report also cites other research suggesting alternative methods of discipline reduce disciplinary referrals, improve school climate and save taxpayers money. That research includes a study of a Maryland elementary school in which alternative discipline practices saved nearly 16 school days a year in teaching and administration time due to reduced disciplinary referrals.
The 11 districts considered in the Texas Appleseed study, which included the Dallas, San Antonio and Houston ISDs, educate nearly 1 million students, or 25 percent of Texas public school students. Districts in the study spent roughly $140 million in 2010-11 on exclusionary discipline.
For instance, such measures cost Houston ISD more than $18.5 million. This included more than $2 million in state funds for average daily attendance lost due to out-of-school suspensions in the district.
A 2011 study by the Council of State Governments cited in the Texas Appleseed report found that more than half of Texas students experienced some form of exclusionary discipline at some point in their middle or high school career. The study, which made rounds in the national media, suggested the state’s use of exclusionary discipline was ineffective and has led some to question whether Texas is over-relying on such methods.
The Council of State Governments study found that students who experienced disciplinary actions like suspension or expulsion were more likely to be held back a grade or drop out. The study also suggested these students were more likely to enter the juvenile justice system than students who did not experience exclusionary discipline.
Included on the joint committee’s agenda for Tuesday is a discussion of the effectiveness of discipline techniques like "zero tolerance" and alternative education programs, as well as disproportionate suspensions and expulsions of students.
Barbara Williams, communications officer at Texas Association of School Boards, says choices about discipline should be made by individual districts.
"We urge lawmakers to provide resources that help districts maintain a high quality education for students in disciplinary settings," she said. "Independent school districts should continue to determine which disciplinary actions work for their students and communities."
The Texas Appleseed study discusses the various costs of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and disciplinary measures that remove students from school and place them in alternative education programs. For serious offenses — generally actions that threaten other students or teachers — schools are required to send students to Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs, which place offenders in a separate classroom or building from the general student body. Students may also be sent to DAEPs for less serious infractions at the discretion of the school district.
Districts can also send students to Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs, partnerships between districts and county juvenile justice programs. JJAEPs are where districts are required to send students for whom DAEP has been ineffective. However, districts can also send students with less serious discipline problems to these programs as well. When a district sends such students to JJAEP, it must pay for the student to attend.
The Texas Appleseed study recommends alternative techniques. These include implementation of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, a framework that stresses social skills, arrangement of classroom and other school areas in ways that discourage misbehavior, and other practices shown to improve student behavior. The study also places emphasis on Social and Emotional Learning, another approach to teaching that seeks to foster emotional and relationship skills among students as a way to mitigate conflict.
Alternative methods recommended by Texas Appleseed have been launched in some Texas schools. These include Ed White Middle School in San Antonio, which implemented a restorative justice program two years ago. The restorative justice method involves mediation within the school community and stresses communication among students and between students and teachers. The program at Ed White costs around $16,000 a year, according to the Appleseed study.