Senate Votes to Loosen School Zero-Tolerance Policies

Sen. John Whitmire (D- Houston)
Sen. John Whitmire (D- Houston)

On Thursday, the Texas Senate overwhelmingly voted to roll back zero-tolerance discipline policies that disproportionately affect poor and minority students. Senate Bill 107 by Sen. John Whitmire (D- Houston) would give administrators more flexibility to deal with unruly students and require that public schools designate behavior coordinators to handle misbehavior. It passed 29-1.

“The bill allows administrators and teachers to work with youth, to hold them accountable and not criminalize them,” Whitmire told the Observer.

Texas’ Safe Schools Act of 1995 requires school administrators to expel students, or place them in a disciplinary alternative education program, for certain types of severe misconduct, such as possession of alcohol or weapons and public lewdness.

“The main objective is to stop mandatory expulsions for the unintentional behavior such as forgetting a small pocketknife, or a shotgun shell,” Whitmire said.

Whitmire laid out his bill on the Senate floor in a little more than a minute, and the Senate passed it in three minutes, about as fast as possible. The speedy passage, however, belies its potential impact.

Mary Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project, says reforming “zero tolerance” could greatly benefit Texas children, especially poor kids.

“We know from existing research that exclusionary discipline is associated with increased likelihood that students will drop out or end up in the criminal justice system,” Mergler said.

Research has shown that children growing up in poverty experience higher levels of traumatic stress than their more affluent peers. This stress can result in smaller brains, higher cortisol levels and overly reactive amygdalas. In other words, these students are at a physiological disadvantage when it comes to navigating the middle-class behavioral standards of public schools.

Whitmire’s bill also states that campus behavior coordinators “shall employ alternative discipline management techniques, including any progressive interventions.”

Mergler says that alternative discipline management techniques, such as restorative discipline and positive behavioral intervention and supports, are better for all students, and help them stay in school.

“The goal should be to keep students in school and in class,” Mergler said.

The bill now moves to the House for consideration.

John Savage is a writer based in Austin.

Published at 6:31 pm CST