In schools across the country, very young students are being suspended and expelled at alarming rates. Even children in preschool are being pushed out of their classrooms, usually for minor behaviors that should be addressed through school-based supports and interventions.
Unfortunately, Texas public schools are no different in the way they punish very young children. For this updated report, Texas Appleseed analyzed new data on in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, and placements in disciplinary alternative education programs for Texas children in pre-kindergarten (pre-K) through 5th grade. This report also highlights recent efforts to reduce classroom removals for very young students in Texas and across the country.
These numbers are conservative. Data for some districts are masked to protect students’ identities when the total number of discipline actions is relatively low (between one and four). Though we have only analyzed the lowest numbers for this report, the number of out-of-school suspensions for pre-K through 5th-graders could be as high as 133,315. The number of in-school suspensions for pre-K through 5th-graders could be as high as 249,018.
Because of these class exclusions, many Texas children are missing important classroom learning time, are being labeled early by teachers and peers as “problem students,” and are being exposed to ineffective and harmful models of problem solving and conflict resolution. Further, these punishments impact certain groups of students more than others—Black children, boys, and students with special education needs are pushed out of class at unequal rates compared to their peers.
Black students make up about 13% of the elementary school population in Texas, but they account for 47% of all pre-K through 5th grade out-of-school suspensions.
Boys represent 51% of the total student population in Texas, but they account for 84% of all pre-K through 5th grade out-of-school suspensions.
Students who receive special education services are 9% of the total student population in Texas, but they account for 21% of all pre-K through 5th grade out-of-school suspensions.
What kind of discipline can be imposed on pre-K and elementary students in Texas?
Many parents and community members are surprised to find that, in Texas, even very young students can be suspended or expelled. School administrators have almost the same range of options available for exclusionary discipline of young students that exist for older students:
- In-School Suspensions (ISS): When students are placed in in-school suspension, they are sent to a designated classroom for an amount of time ranging from a class period to a few days. All placements in ISS are discretionary, meaning there is no law that requires educators to use ISS to punish specific behaviors. Unfortunately, there are also no requirements that students receive the same instruction in an ISS classroom that they would in their regular classrooms, which can cost students important learning time. Many times, students are sent to ISS for “offenses” that are extremely minor, like dress code violations. There is no minimum age for in-school suspensions.
- Out-of-School Suspensions (OSS): Even pre-K and elementary school students may be suspended out of school for up to three days. There is no limit to the number of times a student can be suspended during a school year. OSS is discretionary—the reasons for removal are outlined in each school district’s Student Code of Conduct, but these suspensions are not required by law. Students may not report to school, and there is no designated place for suspended students to go that is monitored by a teacher or district employee.
A study of nearly one million Texas public schoolchildren found that 97% of classroom removals were discretionary and were not required by law. These removals were made in response to Student Code of Conduct violations.
- Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP): A DAEP is a placement for students who are removed from their regular classrooms for more than three days for a discipline violation. Many times DAEPs are located on a separate campus, completely segregated from the general population of students. Chapter 37 of the Texas Education Code mandates placement in a DAEP for certain serious offenses. While these programs are required to teach children the core curriculum (English, math, science, and history) they are often not as rigorous as mainstream programs, and children fall behind their peers during these placements. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has identified placement in a DAEP as a factor that increases students’ risk of dropping out of school. Any student over the age of six can be placed in a DAEP.
- Expulsions: Children under 10 years old may not be expelled unless they bring a firearm to school; for all other expellable offenses, children under 10 must be sent to a DAEP.
Why would a five-year-old student be suspended?
Data provided by the Texas Education Agency do not indicate the reason for each suspension given to young Texas students, but we know the types of “offenses” that can result in suspensions because they are listed in each school district’s Student Code of Conduct. The offenses below are examples of some of the most vague and trivial reasons for removing students from their classrooms:
- Violation of “dress and grooming standards”
- “Being disrespectful”
- “Violating safety rules”
- Violation of “dress and grooming standards”
- “Inappropriate Language”
- “Persistent misbehavior”
- “Classroom disruption”
- “Disrespect toward others”
- “Classroom disruption”
- “Offensive language”
Note: Dallas ISD adopted a new discipline policy that prohibits suspending students in pre-K through 2nd grade for the offenses listed above and limiting suspensions for other levels of offenses. This policy will go into effect at the start of the 2017-18 school year.
- “Disrupting Classes”
- Repeated “violations of rules or procedures established by the teacher”
- Repeated “failure to participate in classroom activities”
Note: Houston ISD adopted a new discipline policy that prohibits suspending students in pre-K through 2nd grade for the offenses listed above. The policy went into effect at the start of the 2016-17 school year.
There are a number of negative outcomes associated with removing young children from class. This is particularly concerning given that young students may be punished for very minor behaviors that are completely age appropriate, but are categorized as offenses like “horseplay” or “persistent misbehavior.” In other instances, a child’s actions may be a symptom of other, more serious underlying issues that should be addressed with evaluations, treatment, and appropriate services.
While students certainly feel the harmful effects of exclusionary punishments immediately, it is also important to recognize the significant and lasting impacts of class exclusions on children’s academic, social, behavioral, and emotional development.
Missed Classroom Time: When children are removed from class, they lose important learning time. A student who is suspended 40 times could miss between 40 and 120 days of classroom learning time each year, out of 180 total school days. When students are not learning from their regular classroom teachers they can quickly fall behind, leaving them feeling frustrated, detached from school, and hopeless.
Creates Mistrust: When children are excluded from class, they begin to lose faith in a system that seems to punish them and their peers randomly and without regard for the underlying cause of the behavior. This mistrust can shape children’s attitudes toward school for the rest of their lives.
“Garrett, an 8-year-old 2nd-grader with autism, was sent home over 50 days in one semester due to behavioral problems. Garrett’s aunt was always called to pick him up. She eventually lost her job because she missed so many days caring for her nephew. The aunt decided to home school Garrett because he was not receiving an education from the school district, and she could not hold a job with all of his class removals.”
–Houston-area attorney who represents children who are pushed out of school
Difficult for Families: School removals can cause stress for families, particularly when DAEP placements and out-of-school suspensions require parents to adjust their work schedules. This adjustment may be a particularly significant burden for working families in Texas who could find it difficult to stay at home to care for young children excluded from school.
Negative School Climates and Lower Overall Academic Achievement: The use of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions does not improve student achievement or overall school climate, according to a report from the American Psychological Association. In fact, the use of these exclusions is associated with less satisfactory school climate ratings and lower school-wide academic achievement for ALL students, not just those who are excluded from their classrooms. One study that followed a state-wide suspension ban in California found that lower suspension rates are correlated with higher academic achievement for all student groups.
Ineffective “Solution”: Suspensions do not change student behavior. Rather, research-based alternatives to exclusionary discipline, like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, mindfulness, meditation, and Restorative Discipline, have been shown to improve student behavior and dramatically reduce the use of classroom removals.
“Lisa, a 7-year-old student with intellectual disabilities, was sent home two to three times per week for behavioral issues. The school district never conducted the necessary behavior evaluations that should be performed for students with disabilities until Lisa’s parents found an attorney to help them.”
Costly for School Districts: When students are removed from class, school districts lose Average Daily Attendance (ADA) funds, which are given to school districts and based on the number of students who are present in class each day. As one example, Dallas ISD estimates that the district loses approximately $50,000 in ADA funds per year due to suspensions of pre-K through 2nd grade students.
Early Labeling: Students who are removed from their classrooms may feel as though they have been labeled as “bad” or “problem” children. This can be particularly devastating for young children who are in the process of developing their self-identities and forging relationships with teachers and peers. A negative label could have a significant impact on a child’s social-emotional development, teachers’ expectations for success, and treatment from peers.
Poor Modeling: Very young children are in the process of learning effective communication and conflict resolution techniques, often basing their behaviors on the models they see in school. When suspensions and expulsions are used—especially to address minor behaviors or in response to actions that actually require real interventions—young children may begin to believe, incorrectly, that punishment and exclusion are appropriate ways to solve problems. Research has shown that poor social-emotional skills development in Kindergarten is associated with undesirable outcomes in the areas of education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health. Poor modeling is particularly concerning considering that children could be observing their peers of color and peers with disabilities excluded at disproportionately high rates.
Disproportionate Impact: Black children, boys, and students with disabilities are punished at disproportionately high rates. Often, these differences are most stark for very young children. In the U.S., African American students represent 18% of pre-school enrollment, but account for 42% of students suspended once and 48% of students suspended more than once.
Studies show that many educators have unconscious, or implicit, biases that impact how they assess and punish the behavior of certain groups of students, like children of color and students with disabilities. These biases can cause educators to punish some students more harshly and more frequently than others, even for the exact same behaviors.
This report provides an analysis of exclusionary discipline practices across 1,227 school districts in Texas, covering over 2 million elementary school students. All of the data for this report were provided by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), which maintains district-level information about discipline in Texas public schools.
The following tables show the total number of actions (or incidents) for each type of exclusionary discipline, not the number of individual students who received a particular punishment. It is important to note that individual students can experience multiple actions in a school year. Both state- and district-level summary tables are presented, as well as figures showing trends by grade level, race, special education status, and gender.
District-level analyses provide additional insights about the prevalence and character of suspensions in elementary schools.
Not surprisingly, some districts have higher suspension rates than others. Among the ten districts with the most out-of-school suspensions in 2015-2016, Waco ISD, Fort Worth ISD, Aldine ISD, and Killeen ISD had the highest rates of out-of-school suspensions. In Waco ISD, for example, there were 17 out-of-school suspensions for every 100 elementary school students during the 2015-2016 school year.
As discussed previously, certain groups of students are disproportionately affected by exclusionary discipline practices. Overall, Black students were more than twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as White students during the 2015-2016 school year. This pattern was particularly apparent in grades K-2.
Although Black students make up only 13% of the elementary school-age population (pre-K through 5th grade) in Texas schools, they account for 47% of out-of-school suspensions.
Similarly, by Kindergarten, students who are eligible for special education services receive 21% of out-of-school suspensions though they comprise only 9% of the student body.
Finally, boys are more than three times as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as girls.
Note. Many of the figures presented above are conservative estimates given TEA’s policies for protecting students’ identities. TEA redacts (or masks) data points reflecting fewer than five students. For purposes of this study, we conducted analyses assuming all redacted cells were the minimum possible value (1). Thus, in many cases, true figures may be as much as 10% higher than those presented in this report.
School districts, educators, legislators, and families have the power to change the way young children are treated in Texas public schools.
School districts and educators should:
1. Adopt age-appropriate, research-based positive behavior systems that keep young students in their classrooms.
School districts should adopt formal policies that specify that schools must not rely on harmful exclusionary discipline practices and instead utilize research-based supports to keep young students in their classrooms, learning with their teachers and peers.
There are a number of alternatives to exclusionary discipline that have proven effective in reducing the use of classroom removals. Examples include Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), Restorative Discipline, mindfulness, meditation, and Social-Emotional Learning, all of which are available to educators and administrators in many Texas schools. When implemented properly, these methods give educators the tools they need to successfully manage their classrooms without relying on harmful suspensions, expulsions, or alternative education placements.
Further, school-wide implicit bias training can help staff and educators to recognize their unconscious biases so that they are aware of how they may be unintentionally viewing certain student behaviors as negative and thus imposing inappropriate punishments.
2. Encourage school-wide policies to limit disciplinary exclusions.
Educators and school administrators should make it clear to teachers and staff that the use of any type of classroom removal should be limited. The Campus Behavior Coordinator can help to design and implement alternative discipline systems.
Administrators should discourage removals that happen outside of a campus’s formal discipline system. Often, students are told to stand outside of their classrooms for some period of time or are repeatedly sent to an administrator’s office, but the removals are not recorded as suspensions. These students are feeling the harms of classroom exclusions, but schools may not be able to address their needs without proper documentation. Schools should not allow for the creation of an informal, harmful punitive discipline system.
The Texas Legislature Should:
Limit suspensions, DAEP placements, and expulsions for young children.
Texas has the opportunity to be a national leader in the way young children are disciplined in school. During the 2017 legislative session, legislators should support bills that 1) limit suspensions, expulsions, and Disciplinary Alternative Education Program placements for Texas’ youngest children and 2) encourage school districts to implement research-based positive behavior systems, led by each school’s Campus Behavior Coordinator.
Parents and Families Should:
1. Advocate for district- and school-wide changes to discipline policies and practices.
Parents, students, and community organizations have a powerful voice. That voice can be used to push for changes at each school campus, at school board meetings, and at the legislature. At every level, leaders should be encouraged to stop excluding young children from school and instead provide the supports they need to be successful.
2. Challenge individual classroom removals.
According to the Texas Education Code, parents and students have the right to challenge suspensions, DAEP placements, and expulsions. Unfortunately, many parents and students do not take advantage of these rights. Parents should receive notice when their child is removed from class, and every student should be able to present his or her side of the story and argue that a removal is inappropriate.
Policies Across the Country
Many school districts, states, counties, and municipalities have passed or are currently exploring policies and laws that limit classroom removals for young students. Some are listed below:
AUSTIN INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
In February 2017, the Austin ISD School Board passed a policy that significantly limits the use of out-of-school suspensions for students in grade levels below 3rd grade. The District ensured supports and trainings for teachers and acknowledged the need to address racial equity issues through changes in its discipline policies.
In 2014, AB 420 was signed into law and prohibits suspensions for “willful defiance” (dress code violations, talking back, failing to have school materials, etc) for Kindergarten through 3rd grade students. Further, willful defiance cannot be used as a cause for expulsion for any student.
Some districts within California, including Los Angeles USD, San Francisco USD, and Oakland USD, have banned willful defiance suspensions for all students.
In 2015, Chicago Public Schools passed a policy that bans the suspension of pre-K through 2nd grade students, except in situations of imminent danger. Additionally, for any student who is suspended the school must develop a plan to prevent any future incidents and address any ongoing difficulties the student may have.
At the time of writing, HB 1210 was passed by the House and has moved to the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs. The bill prohibits the use of out-of-school suspensions for students in preschool through 2nd grades, except in situations that threaten the safety of students or staff. The bill also prohibits expulsions of preschool through 2nd grade students, except when required by federal law, and requires the adoption of “inclusionary discipline practices”—prevention and intervention strategies that address student needs.
In 2015, the state Senate passed SB 1053 which prohibits out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for pre-K through 2nd graders, except for dangerous behavior and requires intervention programs to address behavioral challenges.
DALLAS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
In February 2017, Dallas ISD passed policy changes to reduce and ultimately eliminate suspensions for pre-K through 2nd graders by 2022. The District will provide trainings for teachers and staff in behavior management practices. These practices focus on restorative methods, mindfulness, and using positive behavior models to support students.
EL PASO INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
In 2015, the El Paso School Board passed a Code of Conduct change to prohibit the suspension and expulsion of any student below third grade, except as required by law. For any student above third grade, the school must exhaust other positive behavior methods before a student can be suspended.
HOUSTON INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
In 2016, the Houston ISD School Board passed a Code of Conduct change prohibiting discretionary out-of-school suspensions for students in grades two and below. For 3rd through 5th grades, discretionary exclusions can only be used as a last resort. Houston ISD also committed funds and staff to teacher training and behavior support teams.
In 2015, the state Senate passed SB54, banning suspensions and expulsions of elementary school students for uniform violations.
At the time of writing, Maryland’s House Bill 425 passed the House and is being reviewed in the State Senate. HB 425 would prohibit public schools from suspending or expelling students in pre-K and would restrict suspensions and expulsions in grades K through 2 to circumstances in which a child knowingly brings or possesses a firearm at school.
S2081 was signed into law by Governor Chris Christie in September 2016. S2081 bans out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for pre-K through 2nd grade students and requires schools to identify students that are at or may become at risk of needing disciplinary action.
SB 553 passed in 2015 and prohibits out-of-school suspensions for students in 5th grade or below, except for non-accidental actions that cause (or threaten to cause) serious physical harm, as described by statute.
In 2016, the School Reform Commission of the School District of Philadelphia changed the Code of Conduct to ban out-of-school suspensions for kindergartners, except for violent offenses, and eliminated classroom removals for dress code violations.
House Bill 1541 was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee and went into effect in June 2016. HB 1541 prohibits long-term suspensions or expulsions for any student, requires the office of the superintendent of public instruction to provide access to trainings on alternative discipline management techniques to school districts, and requires schools to continue to provide educational services to any child who is removed from their classroom through suspensions or expulsions.
In 2016, the St. Louis Public School District Code of Conduct was changed to prohibit suspensions for students in Kindergarten through 2nd grades, except when required by law. The District intends to focus on addressing discipline practices that result in the disproportionate punishment of students of color.
Act 21-50 went into effect in the 2015-16 school year and bans the suspension and expulsion of students in publicly funded pre-K programs. Additionally, any disciplinary action that is taken has to be recorded for data collection and analysis.
At the time of writing, SB 5155 is under review in the state Senate. SB 5155 bans the suspension and expulsion of Kindergarten through 2nd grade students, except when required by law. The bill also encourages school districts to provide evidence-based supports for students, and requires districts to continue to provide education services to any student who is suspended or expelled.
Join the growing group of students, parents, and advocates who support limiting school exclusions for young children!
Please check out our new school-to-prison pipeline resource site, www.texasdisciplinelab.org and review our Banning Classroom Removals for Young Children Policy Guide to learn more about how you can impact your local school district’s school discipline policies.
Update Published: March 2017
The Report Team: Morgan Craven, Deborah Fowler, Kelli Johnson, Ellen Stone, Yamanda Wright, Jamie Tegeler-Sauer, Donovan Calvert