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Austin School Board Questions Possible Ban on Pre-K Suspensions

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez/KUT News
The Austin School Board is considering a ban on discretionary removals for pre-K through 2nd graders, but some trustees are concerned if the district has the resources to implement a policy change.

The Austin School Board is expected to vote this month on a proposed ban on some classroom removals and suspensions for pre-K through second-grade students. The board discussed the proposal this week, but some board members raised questions about the idea.

The proposal would not allow these students to be removed from the classroom or put in an alternative classroom setting, unless they broke the law. Some things, like bringing a weapon to school, are mandatory suspensions under state law. At their board meeting this week, Austin ISD Superintendent Paul Cruz said changing this policy is about keeping kids in the classroom and reducing the achievement gap between white students and students of color. 

"It really is about teaching a student and then also us as adults how to work with students in a very different way to get much better outcomes, so that more of our kids, particularly minority students, will graduate high school on time and continue on to post-secondary study," said Cruz. “If along the way it hasn’t been a great experience for you then you’re probably not going to take those next steps to graduate and continue on with your productive life. We want to make sure were facilitating that, not hampering that.”

Last year, 114 black pre-K through second-graders and 185 Hispanic pre-K through second-graders got some type of disciplinary action, compared to 43 white students. But many board members are concerned the district doesn’t have the resources to make sure staff get enough training to help deal with a disruptive kid.

“All of this additional training, you’re now asking assistant principals to be, basically, mental health counselors," said School Board President Kendall Pace. "Again, I’m talking for the very, very small few. How do we get comfortable with that?”

Trustee Julie Cowan was concerned there was not more parental involvement with these children and Trustee Amber Elenz thinks saying “no student can be suspended” is moving too quickly.

“We are in a lot of this situation because of zero tolerance and now to pendulum-swing it all the way over to no student is problematic for me, and instead I just think we can work through process so teachers, principals know the expectation because if its not in this policy," Elenz said.

Edmund Oropez with Austin ISD said he understood the concerns about resources, but he told the board sometimes, necessary change is difficult.

“How else are we going to change the culture and climate of our organization?" Oropez asked. "I mean, just because we’re having angst about something, we’re uncomfortable about something and, like I said before, when the research says clearly that this is the right direction we need to move, we have to move in that direction.”

The school board is expected to vote on the policy change by the end of the month. If approved, some schools would test it out this spring. The new policy would go in effect district-wide next school year. 

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