Op-ed: More Reform Needed in School Discipline

San Antonio Express-News

By John Whitmire and Michael Williams

Texas has a history of leadership when it comes to identifying and solving public policy challenges. And in the realm of school discipline, that leadership is again on display.

Three years ago, data from Texas put school discipline reform on the map. A report called Breaking Schools’ Rules from the Council of State Government (CSG) Justice Center opened our eyes to disturbing discipline practices in our state’s public schools. The report included the shocking statistic that nearly 60 percent of Texas secondary school students had been suspended or expelled.

The impact of this number was evident. Kids were receiving suspensions at an alarming rate and often for minor, discretionary offenses. A disproportionate number were students of color, further widening the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in Texas schools.

Since then, significant policies have been enacted that set our schools on a path toward creating climates more conducive to learning and teaching, including passage of legislation that prohibits practices such as ticketing students for minor offenses.

The state’s emphasis on high academic performance and reducing the dropout rate through academic accountability has further spurred educators to consider alternative disciplinary approaches that keep students in school. Such measures have helped reduce in-school suspensions by 10 percent, out-of-school suspensions by 5 percent and expulsions by 28 percent since 2011.

But clearly much more work needs to be done. A new report released this week by the CSG Justice Center gives our state a roadmap for moving forward and ensuring Texas children are staying in school and learning rather than being removed for minor offenses.

The School Discipline Consensus Report is a massive catalog for overhauling the discipline system in public schools nationwide.

Texas should use the CSG Justice Center report as a guidepost for change in several key areas.

First, the report makes clear that school climate is critical to student success. Schools must also develop effective ways to address student misbehavior. Schools that create welcoming and stable learning environments reduce the likelihood that students will act out in the first place and improve educators’ ability to manage misbehavior.

This includes embracing alternatives that focus on conflict resolution and tiered supports and interventions for students. Edward H. White Middle School in San Antonio’s North East ISD saw an 84 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions when it began using “restorative discipline” techniques that bring students together to come up with a mutually agreed-upon resolution to a particular conflict.

Second, the report emphasizes the importance of good data that tracks progress in reforming discipline practices and identifies students needing early interventions. Our state should create a uniform data collection system that identifies students in repeated contact with the discipline system who could benefit from additional services.

Finally, the report notes that while police are an increasingly regular presence in our nation’s schools, too often they do not receive the training or supervision needed to effectively respond to problem behavior without relying on ticketing as a first response. Their role in schools needs to be clearly spelled out and understood by school leaders, students, parents and law enforcement agencies, and ticketing must be a last resort.

Today, our state has the second-highest graduation rate in the nation. But too many students still are left behind. Continuing to improve our approach to disciplining students is one of the most effective ways to close achievement gaps and ensure all students have a chance to learn, graduate and lead productive lives.