HISD disciplinary action rates drop
Houston ISD students were disciplined at significantly lower rates in 2017-18 compared to the prior year, though black and Hispanic students still were punished at disproportionately high rates compared to white peers, according to data published this week by the state’s largest district.
HISD’s rate of in-school suspensions declined by 23 percent last year, while referrals to the district’s alternative education programs fell by 21 percent and the out-of-school suspension rate dipped 1.8 percent. HISD’s total discipline rate — 22.3 actions per 100 students — ranks among the lowest in the Greater Houston area for medium and large school districts, according to state-published data.
“It’s certainly encouraging to see that,” said Diana Tang, co-chair of the exclusionary discipline group for ONE Houston, a grassroots network that advocates for political and social change in educational settings. “There’s still a lot of work to do to ensure that, even if suspensions aren’t happening, there’s adequate support for students.”
HISD officials have not publicly cited reasons for the decline, at least part of which likely is due to students missing 10 or more days of school after Hurricane Harvey. HISD did not make any district-level administrators available for an interview Thursday.
Despite the declines, the district continues to have one of the state’s largest racial and ethnic disparities in discipline. For example, the rate of out-of-school suspensions for black students — 20.8 per 100 students — was nearly eight times higher than that for white students and nearly three times higher than Hispanic students last year.
School districts across the country have sought to reduce the use of suspensions, with some favoring so-called restorative justice methods that prioritize mending relations and educating students about harm done. In 2015-16, the most recent year with available data, suspensions of students declined about 4 percent from the previous year, according to the federal Civil Rights Data Collection agency.
Districts nationwide also have sought to tackle pervasive ethnic and racial disparities in discipline rates. Researchers generally have concluded disparities are caused by a combination of differences in behavior patterns, varying societal attributes among demographic groups and discriminatory application of discipline. However, researchers often disagree on how much each of those factors accounts for the gap.
The principal of HISD’s Robinson Elementary School, Paige Fernandez-Hohos, said newly implemented restorative justice practices have brought her suspension totals down the past two years. Under that model, misbehaving students receive more creative disciplinary actions tailored toward mending relationships and educating about harm done, rather than being removed from class.
After averaging about 30 suspensions per year prior to implementing those practices, just one student at Robinson received a suspension in 2017-18, Fernandez-Hohos said.
“A huge fallacy regarding the restorative discipline framework is that there are no consequences if there is no suspension,” Fernandez-Hohos said. “There are consequences designed to be more socially meaningful than getting a day off at home.”
HISD’s discipline rate ranks third lowest among the 14 Greater Houston school districts serving at least 25,000 students, according to separate data published by the Texas Education Agency. At the same time, several of the district’s middle schools — Attucks, Cullen, High School Ahead Academy and Thomas — reported some of the state’s high rates of out-of-school suspensions.
The district’s year-over-year reduction in disciplinary actions spread across all demographics: gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, special education status and English language learners. As a result, wide disparities in disciplinary rates remain in HISD. For every 100 students by each demographic, HISD issued the following number of disciplinary actions in 2017-18:
In-school suspensions: Black students, 14.9; Hispanic students, 9.4; white students, 2.7
Out-of-school suspensions: Black students, 20.8; Hispanic students, 7.3; white students, 2.7
Referrals to disciplinary alternative education: Black students, 1.2; Hispanic students, 0.6, white students, 0.2
HISD’s student population last year was 62 percent Hispanic, 25 percent black and 8 percent white.
HISD officials also reported 132 in-school suspensions and 132 out-of-school suspensions for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade last year. HISD passed a policy in early 2016 barring students in those grades from being suspended unless required by law. The district reported 2,673 suspensions or expulsions among early-elementary students in 2014-15.
“This is certainly a win for making schools a safer place for children, but we still have a long way to go,” said Ruth Kravetz, a founder of Community Voices for Public Education, a grass-roots advocacy group whose members pushed for the policy change. “I can’t imagine any situation where a child should be suspended from school or expelled in pre-K through (second grade).”
HISD’s discipline patterns mostly mirror those in Fort Bend ISD, which resolved a six-year federal investigation into its practices in July. Fort Bend saw significant declines in suspensions over the past several years, though black students remained six times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension and four times more likely to get in-school suspension compared to white students.