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School Board Broaches Race as AISD Bans Suspensions for Pre-K through Second-Graders

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
Hallway rules posted in Ortega Elementary School.

Update (Feb. 28 at 6:30 a.m.)  The Austin ISD school board unanimously passed the proposed ban on suspensions for pre-K through second graders at its meeting last night.

Original Story: The Austin School Board will consider a proposal tonight to eliminate out-of-school suspensions for pre-K through second-graders. The district would increase support for students through more training and counselors to help students who may be acting out. School district officials are pushing the board to consider the role of race in student discipline, which, for some, has been a difficult conversation.

Between 2012 and 2016, there were 1,452 suspensions among pre-K through second-graders in Austin public schools – 36 percent of those suspended were black students, 48 percent were Hispanic and 12 percent were white, according to the district.

Several studies show a student’s race is a predictor of how often and how severe the discipline is. In a recent Yale University study, researchers watched teachers' eye movements as they observed videos of children in class.

“When the teachers were asked to determine which children were misbehaving, they watched the black boys for misbehavior more often than they watched any other child," said Morgan Craven with Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit that focuses on ways to end the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

Craven says none of the children in the video were objectively misbehaving, but teachers still recommended punishment for black students.

This type of research is one reason the Austin Independent School District is proposing to end out-of-school suspensions for pre-K through second-graders, except in cases in which suspensions are required under federal law – for example, when a student brings a weapon or drugs to school.

At a school board meeting in January, Superintendent Paul Cruz said teachers and schools need to work with students in different ways so more students stay in school and graduate on time.

“But if along the way it hasn’t been a great experience for you, then you probably aren’t going to take those next steps to graduate and then continue on with your productive life," Cruz said. "We want to make sure we’re facilitating that, not hampering that.”

Austin ISD officials say elementary schools suspend the youngest students only as a last resort, but Cruz also pushed the board to consider race in the conversation.

“Why is it that even when I look at a 6-year-old or a 12-year-old or a 17-year-old, it’s still a male and it’s black and Latino? Why is it?" Cruz asked. "And that’s the hard question. It’s not an easy answer."

Craven with Texas Appleseed offers one reason.

“Implicit bias among educators," he said. "Messages that we’ve received throughout our lives that are stereotypes about that particular group do impact how we view that group and respond to them, even if in our conscious minds we don’t want it to.”

AISD School Board Trustee Ted Gordon agrees, but he says that’s hard for people to accept.

“When you then come back and accuse them of being implicitly racist it’s an accusation that really hurts," he told KUT. "This is particularly true for teachers who work long hours, get paid almost nothing, those teachers who are in District 1 who are working with black and Latino students, who are doing the best they can for the kids in those classrooms. To then have to face the accusation that they’re implicitly racist has to be particularly difficult."

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News
Trustee Ted Gordon supports ending out of school suspensions for pre-K through second-graders.

At the January school board meeting, it was difficult for some trustees, including Jayme Mathias, to accept, too.

“I’d like to think it’s not a bias against students of color by our faculty and staff and administrators. I really don’t believe it’s that. I wonder if it’s something else," he told board members. Something else, he suggested, like their socioeconomic status.

“The question is, then, are they suspended because they are students of color or are they suspended because they are [economically disadvantaged]?" he said. "I’d love to get data on that."

School Board President Kendall Pace said the data was not presented on the basis of whether a student is economically disadvantaged.

"Well the majority of students we serve are economically disadvantaged and the majority of students we serve are students of color," Vice President Paul Saldaña said. "So, I would say there’s probably some correlation between the two. So, whether we’re labeling them as economically disadvantaged or African-American and Latino, they’re going to be the same.”

In a phone interview after the meeting, Pace went back and forth on the idea of implicit bias.

“I don’t think you can make a blanket statement like everyone has an implicit bias or no one has an implicit bias. I’m sure there are instances, so I’m sure it’s something we need to work on," she said.

Pace said the decision to suspend a student lies in the hands of the principals, not teachers, even though teachers make the decision to send the student to the principal's office. 

“The teachers are referring to administrators and the administrators are making that decision. Our administrators in our Title I schools are much more representative of the population they serve than necessarily our teachers in the classroom," Pace said.

When asked to clarify, Pace said people of color can have implicit bias against students of color, too.

Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News
School Board President Kendall Pace said combating implicit bias was something the district needed to work on.

But the board’s January conversation focused more on what resources the district could allocate, if it eliminated suspensions for pre-K through second-graders.

Right now, if a child is having an issue, principals reach out to the district to send a behavioral specialist to help the child. But it can take days or weeks for the specialist to show up because resources are stretched thin.

In response to board concerns, Austin ISD is proposing adding four more elementary school mental health counselors and reallocating money for more behavioral coaches, as well as an increase in training for all mental health employees.

The proposal before the board states teachers can still remove a disruptive student from class and the child can be placed in a student support center, which is, essentially, an in-school suspension.

But if black and brown students continue to be removed from the classroom at a higher rate, it’s unclear if this change would solve the problem.

Gordon said it's incumbent on the district to fix deficiencies within the district and that introspection is important – that some problems can be attributed to educators. 

"When you tell me that black kids, that a large number of black kids are entering our classrooms in a way that is disruptive, and they need to be excused from those classrooms because that’s the only way in which that classroom is going to operate, what you're basically telling me is that those kids are inferior," Gordon said. "That they’re coming to the classroom in a way that the school can’t fix, that the school can’t do something about."

In this new proposed student support center, students would continue to get instruction and any counseling they need. The proposed policy says pre-K through second-graders could not be put in a student support center for more than one day at a time. Edmund Oropez with Austin ISD told the school board necessary change is often the hardest to make.

“How else are we going to change the climate and culture of our organization?" Oropez said. "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 have to move, we have to move in that direction.”

If the board approves the policy, it will go into effect next school year. 

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