At last month’s board meeting, as a part of a group of parents from Community Voices for Public Education, I attended the Houston ISD School Board meeting in order to advocate for parents who are planning to opt their children out of the state-mandated STAAR test. You can read more about that movement and its progress in the Texas Observer.
While I felt strongly about that issue, there is something else that captured my attention at that meeting—the debate that the trustees held regarding banning the use of suspensions for our youngest children ages 4 through about 7 years old.
It was fascinating and infuriating to watch for many reasons. You can read the actual policy proposal on Page 154 #3 of November’s board agenda and the type of broad based support it has here, here and here, but the summary is that the policy would ban suspensions in Grades 2 and below, and for students in Grades 3, 4 and 5, it makes suspension the discipline of last resort.
This policy is sound for many reason including:
- There is no research to support the idea that student behavior improves with exclusionary discipline practices. In fact, research shows that student behavior problems are more likely to be exacerbated and decrease the student’s chances for success in school later.
- Research shows that suspensions damage the teacher-student bond and bonds with other adults in the school setting. Children need to develop these bonds in order to be successful in school.
- Suspensions are not developmentally appropriate for 4-7 year olds as they have not yet developed the cognitive skills necessary to understand the punishment.
- Doing away with suspensions has been done in other districts and schools across the country and has been successful.
- Suspensions are applied disproportionately to students of color and students with disabilities. According to the Office of Civil Rights, African-American students were nearly three times as likely to be suspended and 3.5 times as likely to be expelled than their white peers. Students with disabilities are suspended and expelled at a rate roughly twice that of their non-disabled peers. HISD’s own data reflects these disturbing gaps in the application of policy.
As an LSSP, I have seen firsthand the effects suspension has on children, and they are severe.
President Skillern-Jones said it well during public debate that suspension for our youngest was an ineffective solution to root problems. She explained accurately that once kids are suspended, they go home to no educational activity or enrichment (often to the environment that is the source of the problem in the first place), and they then come back to campus with a negative view of school PLUS are behind academically when they return. These negative views and further academic gaps then snowball with the original issue.
Fundamentally, suspensions accelerate a student towards failure.
Suspension does terrible things for the student-teacher relationship and the student-administrator relationship. It sends the message to the child that the school cannot handle their bad behavior, which is a terrible message to send. Skillern-Jones also brought up the fact that in these youngest students cognitive skills are not sufficiently developed to a point that suspensions are understood as a punishment such that it is remembered and impacts their future behavior.
Furthermore, these negative effects add to HISD’s discriminatory environment as suspensions are experienced disproportionately by children of color and by males. Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones offered many facts during last month’s discussion including that in Texas 13% of the elementary school students are black, but account for 42% of Pre-K through 2nd Grade suspensions.
source: HISD student suspensions in five graphics by Ericka Mellon
Banning suspensions for such young students is a sound policy and would put a serious dent at the beginning of HISD’s school-to-prison pipeline. As the largest district in Texas, Houston ISD could be a leader for the state.
Unfortunately, as you can guess, the Board of Trustees disappointed its stakeholders and experts yet again and failed to pass the policy as recommended by administrators.
What happened was a brilliant political move by Trustee Harvin Moore, from the River Oaks area. After relaying a story of how his 4-year-old son benefitted from an afternoon suspension from an elite, private preschool and had to spend the afternoon with his mother, he offered an amendment that gutted the policy by changing it to read that suspensions could be used as a last resort.
Does Mr. Moore think that the thousands of young children suspended in HISD are really comparable to his son being sent home for throwing rocks at a private preschool? Does he really think that administrators are using suspensions today as something other than a last resort? What principal says, “Well, I’ll try suspending this kid, but if his behavior continues, then I’ll be forced to do something else.”
Mr. Moore is clearly out of touch.
Alas, his amendment was accepted and the policy passed first reading as amended with only two trustees voting against it—effectively leaving suspension policy as is.
I was particularly disappointed in my Trustee from District I, Anna Eastman. She is educated as a social worker, and as such, should have known that keeping our youngest children in school and finding solutions to root causes of behavior problems was sound public policy. If there is anything that gives me hope, it was the passion that President Rhonda Skillern-Jones has displayed for change on this issue. She truly advocated for the best for all students and was the only one willing to speak out on their behalf. I can’t wait to see more of her advocacy in action.
I hope the trustees will reconsider the original form of the policy when it comes back for second reading this Thursday. They should realize that suspension of 4, 5 and 6-year-olds is not a tool in the discipline toolbox. It is an ineffective, discriminatory practice that creates much bigger problems and must be eliminated now. There are societal consequences of using suspension for discipline, which include setting children on a negative path and exacerbating inequality.
A vote for suspensions of our youngest is a vote to keep HISD’s school-to-prison pipeline alive and well.
Allow me to briefly introduce my wife, Sarah Becker, the author of this post. She is a licensed specialist in school psychology, has worked in public schools for 10 years and is mother to our three kids. She feels just as strongly as I do about the inadequacies of Houston ISD’s Board of Trustees and chose to write this piece to draw attention to an important education and social justice issue coming before them again this week.