Austin ISD proposing no suspensions, expulsions for its youngest students

FILE - Student writing (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Student writing (KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District is considering changing the way principals and teachers discipline the youngest children in the classroom.

Monday night, school board trustees discussed a revision to the student code of conduct that would ban suspensions, expulsions and classroom removals for students in prekindergarten through second grade. The only exception would be when it’s required by law for the most serious offenses like assaults, guns, drugs or alcohol.

“We really feel like let’s start early and let’s eliminate this practice,” said Edmund Oropez, AISD’s Chief Officer for Teaching and Learning. “And we think we can do better offering healthy support for our students.”

In addition, the district is recommending it be a last resort for other elementary students in grades three through five.

Austin ISD identified the top five reasons for suspensions in pre-k, kindergarten, first and second grade:

  • physical aggression towards another student
  • demonstrating physical aggression toward adults
  • disrupting the learning environment
  • insubordination
  • rude to adult

While researching the issue, the district broke down the number of suspensions across all four grades over the last four years which totaled 351 classroom removals.

“Why would they suspend or expel at such a young age?” asked Mark Balabis, who has a 5-year-old daughter in pre-k.

It’s a question Texas Appleseed has been asking for several years.

“All these removals do is take a child out of the class for some period of time and bring them back without actually addressing what could be an underlying problem,” said Morgan Craven, director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project. “Some of these punishments are for really vague behavior like horseplay, and so when you talk about horseplay for a 5-year-old, you know a lot of times, that is perfectly age-appropriate behavior.”

They have been encouraging Austin ISD to work toward a new approach after working with Houston ISD to make it happen at the end of 2015. El Paso ISD has passed a similar policy as well, and Dallas ISD is discussing it.

While AISD trustees like the concept, they expressed concern about how it will be implemented in a way that helps all students, from the child who is causing a disruption in the classroom to the other students trying to learn.

Board President Kendall Pace said she’s had some elementary school principals tell her they are terrified of the policy.

“Will they have training? Will they have resources?” asked Pace during the meeting Monday night. “I’m talking about the child who is clawing, punching, throwing chairs. What if that student takes time away from the rest of the class?”

She said not removing a child from a classroom is an admirable goal the district should strive for, but she is concerned about what campus administrators may be trying to deal with.

“We’re asking assistant principals to be mental health counselors,” said Pace concerned that they may be unequipped to handle an aggressive student.

Oropez said the district has a team of 17 specialists ready to help teachers with children, and pointed to the social-emotional learning model and training that has been implemented district-wide.

“[It] provides the type of training and support for teachers that can deal with kids who are going through some trauma and trouble,” said Oropez.

The potential change in policy was just a discussion item Monday night, and has not been put to a vote.

 

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