With Houston ISD and El Paso ISD a few weeks into a school year without suspensions for their youngest students, leaders in the state’s second-largest school district will consider joining them.
Wednesday night will mark the first meeting of a task force in Dallas ISD that will consider how to end suspensions in early grades, a practice that, in Dallas and across Texas, is used disproportionately to discipline African-American students and students with disabilities. Advocates for the ban say that suspensions not only derail students’ classroom learning, but also lead to further run-ins with juvenile justice system. Federal education officials have noted that suspending or expelling a very young student greatly increases their chances of dropping out.
While these arguments have won over school officials in Houston and El Paso, some Dallas ISD (DISD) board members have been skeptical.
A proposal to ban suspensions in early grades drew support from a statewide coalition of civil rights groups, which noted that of the 5,500 students in grades 5 and under suspended in the 2014-2015 year, almost 3,000 of them were African-American boys. But longtime Dallas ISD trustees Lew Blackburn and Bernadette Nutall, both of whom are black, doubted whether banning suspensions would address the district’s problems with discipline.
“We have a lot of work to do on this one, and I’d hate to have to rush it,” Blackburn said at a board meeting in June, according to the Dallas Morning News.
The suspension ban proposal came from Miguel Solis, a former DISD teacher and administrator who was elected to the board in 2013. Solis told the Observer that the racial disparities evident in the district’s suspension numbers startled him; he considered them in light of his first classroom experience, as a Teach for America recruit teaching U.S. history at a Dallas middle school.
“I was a rookie teacher, and I didn’t get any training whatsoever on how to descalate in discipline situations,” he said.
Solis spent the spring trying to get the suspension ban passed, but the board tabled the idea in favor of appointing a task force of teachers, administrators and parents to craft a comprehensive discipline plan for the district. Solis said he’s encouraged by the district’s enthusiasm for reforming classroom management with teachers’ support.
“It’s not just about discipline,” Solis said. “It’s about tools for educators. So any time you make an attempt to make a systematic change and eliminate tools, no matter how archaic those tools may be, teachers are going to respond.”
Although the board balked initially at the suspension ban, DISD is entering the second school year of a plan to make restorative justice a part of school culture. The district began with six middle and elementary campuses in the 2015-2016 year and expanded to 20 this year, with plans to grow from there.
Restorative practices — a model meant to encourage understanding between students and teachers before conflict arises — are also part of the new discipline reforms in Houston ISD and El Paso ISD, along with their ban on suspensions for young kids. In middle schools that took part in the DISD pilot, in-school suspensions dropped by 64 percent last year and out-of-school suspensions went down 70 percent, according to DISD.
DISD’s discipline task force will continue meeting this fall, before reporting back to the board in December. Solis hopes that by then the board will be ready to approve a suspension ban along with those recommendations.
“We can’t continue to go on this way,” Solis said. “I want to see something done as soon as possible. I don’t want to continue to look at these things and say we’re not going to do anything about it.”