AUSTIN, Texas – As the nation focuses on racism in police departments after the death of George Floyd and widespread protests, similar conversations are happening in school districts, where, in places like Texas’ capital, Black students are more likely to be suspended, charged with crimes for misbehavior and expelled.
Black students were suspended at nearly five times the rate of white students in the Austin school district in the 2018-19 school year, according to records obtained by the American-Statesman of the USA TODAY Network through the Texas Public Information Act. These statistics mirror regional and national numbers that have for years shown racial inequality in suspension rates in schools.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released data in 2014 showing that Black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students in the United States. The data obtained by the Statesman show that disparity in the Austin district in recent years has been even greater.
In the 2018-19 school year, when the Austin district gave 2,599 out-of-school suspensions, 7.4% of the district’s Black students were suspended, compared with 3.6% percent of Hispanic students and 1.5% of white students. That’s similar to the 2017-18 school year, when the district gave out-of-school suspensions to 8.2% of Black students, 3.9% of Hispanic students and 1.6% of white students.
Numbers from across the state also show racial disparities. According to the Texas Education Agency, administrators suspended 20.7% of the state’s 685,775 Black students in the 2018-19 school year, 7.7% of its 2.9 million Latino students and just 4.1% of its 1.5 million white students.
‘The child is trying to tell us something’
Austin school district administrators said they are aware of the racial disparities in out-of-school suspension rates and are continuing to address them, adding that progress has been made, albeit slowly, as the total number of out-of-school suspensions has decreased within the district each year.
“We are still working hard to make sure that we affect mindsets and beliefs around what is possible with children and what other options there are whenever a behavior is observed. We’re not there 100% yet, but that is what we’re working on,” said Gilbert Hicks, associate superintendent of elementary schools. “Every behavior is an opportunity, and that is the way you need to look at it. The child is trying to tell us something, and we need to figure out what that is and then work with them on that.”
Hicks said the district has taken proactive steps to address suspension rates. In 2017, the school board unanimously banned at-home suspensions and expulsion for children in pre-kindergarten through second grade, except when required by law. From 2014 to 2016, less than 1% of students in that age range were suspended districtwide each school year. Since the ban, administrators said only a few cases have resulted in suspensions.
Across campuses, the district has implemented restorative justice practices and wraparound services centered on student mental health. Restorative practices, which often involve a moderated conversation between parties, are intended to build a stronger community and strengthen individual relationships.
“You are trying to restore the relationship between the parties that are involved,” said Ty Davidson, executive director of middle school operations. “It is around the mindset that the typical and traditional discipline procedures that we’ve used are not always best for students.”
Sheila Henry, executive director of high school operations, said that in addition to restorative practices, high school administrators try to use less severe disciplinary measures, such as in-school suspension and detention, to keep students in the classroom. Henry said that school resource officers are rarely involved in suspensions “unless an arrest is necessary.”
The district also offers professional learning opportunities for staffers, and sometimes community members including parents, on topics such as cultural proficiency, inclusivity and implicit bias. One workshop focuses on how to implement culturally responsive restorative practices instead of traditional disciplinary measures.
While the training is not mandatory, last school year about 600 people attended the introductory Isolating Race workshop, a prerequisite for many of the other sessions, according to Angela Ward, the district’s race equity administrative supervisor.
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Groups call for school police reform
A group of local social justice organizations called on the Austin school district to ensure greater equality on campuses and divest from school policing, citing the “physical and psychological harms of over policing on students from minority communities as well as those with disabilities.”
In a letter sent June 9 to departing Superintendent Paul Cruz and copied to the Austin school board, four Texas-based partnering organizations — the Children’s Defense Fund Texas, Disability Rights Texas, the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University and Texas Appleseed — asked the district to take measures to ensure equality, including reallocating money currently going toward policing to hiring and training mental health counselors and social workers to handle instances of bullying, harassment, disruptive behavior, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse, and other nonviolent incidents. The groups also sent letters to school districts in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.
“In this moment of heightened awareness of the trauma experienced by so many at the hands of police officers, AISD should follow in the footsteps of other districts, like Portland Public Schools and Minneapolis Public Schools, by divesting in school policing,” the letter states.
Many school districts have contracts with local police departments to supply school resource officers, while others, such as the Austin district, have their own internal police departments. School resource officer programs originated in the 1950s but grew dramatically nationwide during the 1990s, a trend that coincided with the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
In Texas today, more than 200 school districts have their own police forces.
In recent weeks, school districts across the U.S. have reevaluated their relationships with the police. The Minneapolis and Denver school districts terminated their contracts with city police departments, and Charlottesville, Va., and Portland, Ore., discontinued the regular presence of their school resource officers.
The Austin district, with 130 school campuses and more than 80,000 students, employs 84 full-time officers in its police department, including 43 school resource officers, 20 patrol officers and two mental health officers.
“Students of color, particularly Black and Hispanic students, are overrepresented in law enforcement referrals for offenses,” the letter states. “Students can face expulsion or suspension when referred to law enforcement. In fact, when law enforcement charges students, they are almost always also suspended or expelled.”
Parents, residents call for shifting of funds
At a school board meeting last week, several dozen parents and Austin residents called on the district to reallocate funds from its police department and put the money towards restorative justice practices, counseling and other support services. Speakers also asked for more transparency regarding the department’s funding and the officers’ use-of-force statistics.
The district’s police department currently receives about $9.4 million in funding. In the $1.65 billion budget the board approved this week, the police budget increased by $250,000 for three new nonofficer positions, whose job will be to provide more social and emotional support, as well as threat assessment and security.
Studies have shown a direct connection between incarceration and school disciplinary policies that disproportionately affect students of color, a relationship often called the school-to-prison pipeline. A study of Texas discipline policies by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute in 2011 found that for students in middle or high school, 23% of those suspended at least once ended up in contact with a juvenile probation officer, compared with just 2% of those not disciplined.
“So little grace and compassion is extended to young people in schools. When you have an internal police force, that just makes it that much worse,” said Andrew Hairston, director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project at the Austin-based Texas Appleseed and a co-author of the letter. “A gold stance that AISD could take right now is to say we are not going to invest further in the criminalization of young black students.”
Austin school board President Geronimo Rodriguez said that despite the district’s progress, including banning suspensions for students in pre-kindergarten to second grade, and investing in social and emotional learning, the district has more work to do when it comes to racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions in the district.
“Are (suspensions) still disproportionately impacting Latino and Black children? Absolutely. We have to do better,” he said. “The board has a responsibility and obligation to create a culture of dignity and respect, and that includes eliminating racial disparities.”
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