The Q&A: Augustina Reyes

In this week’s Q&A, we interview Augustina Reyes, a professor at the University of Houston's College of Education.

Dr. Augustina "Tina" Reyes.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Augustina Reyes is a professor at the University of Houston's College of Education. Her research focuses on teaching and school discipline. This semester, she is teaching a class about the school-to-prison pipeline.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Tell me what your research has found out about school discipline and the criminal justice system.

Augustina Reyes: It’s clear that school discipline has intersected with the criminal code. The state law, Chapter 37 of the Texas education code, begins to create criminal cases for misbehavior issues. If a teacher wants to get rid of a student, he can put him into these alternative schools: the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program or the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program, depending on the crime.

Only 50 percent of kids referred to the JJAEP are mandatory movements. Usually for it to be mandatory – someone brings a gun to school, they’re a sex predator or they’re there on a violent offense. But people could also be put in there for “persistent misbehavior”, which is based on what school districts define in their code of conduct.

It could be a kid who just acts up all the time – disrupting class and taking up the teacher’s time. Some districts have these five-level systems where by the third you can send them to the DAEP, and if they continue to act up, they can send them to the JJAEP.

Trib+Edu: What’s the impact of this? What are some solutions?

Reyes: One of the greatest things you can do for these kids is have a relationship with them. That’s how teachers can convince them they’re important. So having good relationships with your students is what makes a difference. Kids have relationships with each other on campus, they have a relationship with their curriculum and what they’re learning. Once you break those relationships by sending them out of the school, then you’re breaking the education cycle.

There’s a Harvard study where the hypothesis was the quality of teacher relationships with children is one of the strongest predictors of classroom behavior. How do you teach people to have a relationship with children who are poor and having difficulty reading? Everyone wants that star math, science or technology student.

But we have other students, too. You can do staff development. Even if you have a third grader, sometimes the first thing the principal says is to write him up. You really wonder: don’t you have more creativity than that? Don’t you understand more about eight-year-old children?

Trib+Edu: What does it take to do restorative justice the right way?

Reyes: It does take extra personnel and time to develop those programs, but sometimes it seems like very basic stuff. In education, we have the round robin system where students and teachers sit around in a circle and talk. Some think it’s easier if I get rid of this kid with whom I have to counsel every once in a while and have to look in the face and say, what’s going on today? Teachers have to be trained; quality teachers are important. Not only do you have to teach basic skills but should also know basic social and human skills.

Trib+Edu: What do the numbers say about the school-to-prison pipeline?

Reyes: Men are 10 times more likely to be in prison than women. African Americans are six times more likely to be in prisons than white people. High school dropouts are 20 times more likely than college graduates to be in prison. Thirty-five percent of black men younger than 35 who did not complete high school are going to go to prison.

One out of nine African American kids has a father in prison. You will find children of prisoners are more likely to show symptoms of depression, aggressive behavior and diminished school achievement. Kids who are suspended are more likely to be incarcerated.

Trib+Edu: What is the impact of strict discipline measures in school?

Reyes: What you do to these children is creating a pipeline and you’re creating a greater probability of incarceration, rather than trying to do new things like improving social emotional skills, trying to understand the trauma. Work I have done shows when it comes to suspensions, 70 percent of kids are poor, 70 percent are at risk and have reading problems.

That means we need to do something to help them academically. Pushing them into prison is not an answer. It’s more expensive. When are people going to realize prisons are expensive? It’s not where we want to continue to throw our money. I just think: pay now with a decent education or pay later with overcrowded prisons. And clearly, there is a lot of discrimination in terms of who gets into prison.

Trib+Edu: What should lawmakers know about the school-to-prison pipeline?

Reyes: I hope they keep in mind money. Unless you want to keep pouring money into prisons, you should do something at the school level. It’s really important for people involved with children to understand these children have a difficult life and you don’t know what happened last night in their home.

Kids actually come to school as their safe haven sometimes. Most kids want to be in school; some kids go to school after traumatic events in their neighborhood. Take the time to ask: what’s going on with you?