UPDATE, 3:45 p.m. August 29: This story has been updated to include additional reporting
In 2017, Texas lawmakers passed a bill barring school districts across the state from placing their youngest students in out-of-school suspension.
But the following year, a handful of North Texas schools continued suspending those students, according to a new report from Texans Care for Children, a nonpartisan policy organization.
Fort Worth ISD placed 16 pre-K students in out-of-school suspension that year, making it one of just three traditional school districts in the state with more than 10 pre-K suspensions.
Two public charter schools in the DFW area also continued suspending pre-K students, according to the report. Waxahachie Faith Family Academy had 20 pre-K suspensions during the 2017-18 school year. Trinity Basin Preparatory Academy had 10 pre-K suspensions.
Clint Bond, a spokesman for Fort Worth ISD, wouldn't outline the reasons for those 16 suspensions, but he said the district complies with the regulations laid out in House Bill 674, which went into effect in June 2017.
"As per the law, our pre-K through (grade) 2 suspensions are restricted to those offenses involving assault, weapons or drugs," he said.
Trey Varner, chief legal and operations officer for Trinity Basin Preparatory Academy, said the school had received guidance stating that the ban on suspensions of young students didn't apply to charter schools. The text of the bill doesn't expressly say the restriction applies to charter schools. It also doesn't say they're exempt.
Suspensions of students of any age aren't common at Trinity Basin, Varner said. Especially for young students, it's a punishment that's reserved for extreme cases like assault, he said.
"I wouldn't say it's common," he said.
Representatives for Waxahatchie Faith Family Academy didn't return calls for comment Wednesday.
Far outpacing any other school district in the state was Killeen ISD, which reported 303 out-of-school suspension of pre-K students. Killeen accounted for 44% of the state's pre-K suspensions during that school year, according to the report.
House Bill 674 bars school districts and open enrollment charter schools from suspending students in pre-K through second grade under most circumstances. The law allows districts to suspend those students up to three days for certain extreme behavioral issues, including bringing guns or drugs to school.
After the law went into effect, the state saw a dramatic decline in out-of-school suspensions for young students, according to the report. During the 2015-16 school year, the state saw 36,475 suspensions for students in pre-K through second grade. By the 2017-18 school year, the year after the new law took effect, that figure had plummeted to 7,640 suspensions.
But, according to the report, there wasn't a similar decline among those students in in-school suspensions, where students are removed from the classroom and taken to some other room on campus. Texas schools reported 64,773 in-school suspensions during the 2015-16 school year among students in pre-K through second grade. Two years later, that figure had fallen only slightly to 62,557.
The lack of movement in in-school suspensions is likely because HB 674 doesn't bar districts from placing young students in in-school suspension. But even though it doesn't violate state law, in-school suspension can have many of the same detrimental effects for the youngest students as an out-of-school suspension would, said David Feigen, early childhood policy associate for Texans Care for Children.
In-school suspension removes the child from the classroom, but it isn't effective at managing students' behavior, Feigen said. For the youngest students, it can send the message that they aren't cut out for school, he said.
"In-school suspension still represents a missed opportunity in addressing the student's behavioral challenges that got them there in the first place," Feigen said.
There are more effective ways for school officials to deal with behavioral issues, Feigen said. He pointed to a restorative discipline program in Dallas ISD that allows students to mediate their own conflicts. The program looks at students' problems more holistically and tries to take into account the underlying causes for bad behavior. For example, if a student steals another student's lunch, it's possible the first student was hungry and didn't have anything to eat, Feigen said. In that case, a suspension might not make sense.
The report also highlights inequities in which students are suspended most often. Black students, boys and students enrolled in special education services tend to be suspended more often than their peers, according to the report. Students who are in foster care are suspended more than three times as often as the state average, according to the report.
Feigen said a number of factors are probably driving those disparities. Students in foster care are more likely to have experienced trauma, which could make them more prone to outbursts that lead to suspensions, he said. Likewise, students in special education might have problems that lead to certain behavioral issues, he said.
The disparity between the suspension rate among black boys and the state average is likely caused by implicit bias among teachers, he said. He cited research that suggests that teachers tend to punish those students more severely for the same behavior as that shown by their peers.
The report includes a number of recommendations for the Texas Education Agency and state lawmakers, including monitoring districts' use of suspensions, particularly among black students, students in foster care and other over-represented groups. The report also recommended the agency offer training to teachers on implicit bias and developmentally appropriate teaching strategies.
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