Thousands of students in the Dallas Independent School District show up to school each morning not knowing where they'll sleep that night. Under a bill in the Texas Senate, districts wouldn't be allowed to suspend such students if they misbehave.
Senate Bill 1001 would bar school districts from suspending students who are homeless. Instead, districts would be directed to use other disciplinary methods like in-school suspension when dealing with those students. About 3,000 homeless students are enrolled in Dallas ISD.
During a Tuesday morning meeting of the Senate Education Committee, Senate President Pro Tem Kirk Watson, the bill's author, said the bill would force districts to work with homeless students to help with the unique challenges they face rather than simply kicking them out of school for bad behavior.
"Some of these students' behavior problems are likely linked to being homeless," said Watson, a Democrat from Austin. "Rather than forcing them back onto the street for behavioral issues, schools should use other methods to try and address the underlying issues causing these problems."
Robyn Harris, a spokeswoman for Dallas ISD, said the district tries to avoid suspending students, regardless of housing status, wherever possible. District officials use a range of other alternatives for disciplinary action, she said.
"Out-of-school suspension for Dallas ISD is a last resort," Harris said.
The bill includes a provision that allows school officials to suspend homeless students in certain extreme cases, including when a student is caught with a weapon or commits a violent act. But Brett Merfish, director of youth justice at the Austin-based think tank Texas Appleseed, said a large percentage of suspensions of homeless students don't rise to that level.
Merfish said the group recently conducted research into the reasons that homeless students are suspended from school. In a large percentage of cases, those students are suspended not for violent or dangerous actions, but for lower-level issues like not following directions. In the Dallas school district, 25 percent of homeless students who were suspended received the punishment for profanity or classroom disruption, Merfish said. In Houston, 8 percent were suspended for skipping school.
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"So we're actually sending them out of the classroom for not being in the classroom," Merfish said.
A second bill, Senate Bill 424, would require districts to take into account a student's homeless status or foster care placement before taking disciplinary action against the student. The committee left both bills pending.
The two bills represent an acknowledgment of demographic changes that have taken place in Texas public schools, said Sen. Royce West, author of Senate Bill 424. Many of the state's public school students now face not only homelessness, but also a lack of access to food and medical care, said West, a Dallas Democrat.
"That's a fact in the state of Texas now that many of us didn't even dream would be an occurrence years ago," West said.