More than 88% of FBISD’s suspensions go to African-American, Hispanic students
Although African American and Hispanic students make up only slightly more than half the student population at Fort Bend ISD schools, together they accounted for over 86 percent of all the out-of-school suspensions and more than 92 percent of student transfers to alternative programs associated with more serious discipline incidents last year, district reports indicate.
The statistics represent what district officials acknowledge has been a long-standing problem involving a disproportionate rate of African American and Hispanic students being excluded from the classroom for discipline reasons. District officials say it’s a complex issue that administrators and teachers are working to address.
“To me, this issue is one that is at the heart of equity,” superintendent Charles Dupre told trustees at the Sept. 24 board meeting. “This issue is very important to me and it’s important to my team. Literacy and this discipline issue are the two most critical issues we’re got to manage right now. This is where we make it or break it as a district.”
Problems with equity and discipline at Fort Bend ISD often involve teachers or principals handing out more severe punishments to African American and Hispanic students as compared to white or Asian students for the same infractions. Discipline incident reports reviewed by trustees didn’t include specific details related to types of infractions associated with incident outcomes or side-by-side comparisons for each campus. However, agenda documents did show some positive results as the number of discipline incidents appeared to be trending downward. For example, the number of out-of-school suspensions decreased more than 22 percent last year, going from a district-wide total of 4,508 during the 2016-17 school year to 3,480 last year. Approximately 87.65 percent of the out-of-school suspensions involved African American or Hispanic students during both reporting periods, according to district agenda documents.
The number of students students transferred to alternative programs due to more severe discipline problems, also called District Alternative Education Programs (DAEP) placements, also decreased last year from a district-wide total of 253 in 2016-17 to 173. However, more than 93 percent of those involved in DAEP placements last year were African American or Hispanic students, up slightly from 92.5 percent reported for the total 2016-17 DAEP placements.
In contrast, 2017-18 enrollment reports indicate African American students made up 27.35 percent and Hispanic students represented 26.5 percent of Fort Bend ISD’s total student population. Asian students accounted for 25.97 percent, 16.6 percent were white and less than one-percent were identified as American Indian, Alaska Native and Pacific Islander.
The statistics were part of a presentation on “discipline management and positive behavior supports” that detailed annual reports for in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions and DAEP placements.
Mary Brewster, director of student affairs, told trustees about data-validation reports for discipline-related incidents the district must submit to the Texas Education Agency required as a result of “continued disproportionality rates for African American students”. In addition, district officials must submit a corrective-action plan.
Board members weigh in
Three board members took up the discussion following the presentation to go over concerns and ask questions.
Trustee Addie Heyliger expressed empathy for teachers and students dealing with disparities and questioned the challenges that sometimes cause discipline issues.
“I appreciate the data but what I really want to know is what are we doing to support our kids?” Heyliger said. “I also want to make sure our teachers feel supported by the district and they have everything they need in the classroom.”
During the presentation, administrators told trustees some students with behavior problems were acting out because they had suffered a traumatic event recently. Heyliger encouraged administrators to focus on helping students learn to deal with trauma and emotional stress.
“How are we utilizing our social workers and counselors to figure out what is going on with kids having discipline issues?” she asked. “I think that is a major gap because our kids are going through a lot at school right now and we have to figure out how to help them through that process.”
The disparities noted by administrators were even more obvious at schools on the east side of the district that feed into Hightower, Marshall and Willowridge High Schools where district officials acknowledge African American students are over-represented in DAEP placements compared to schools in other feeder patterns. For example, of the 2,265 out-of-school suspensions reported last year, 56.8 percent (1,287) involved students attending campuses within the Hightower, Marshall and Willowridge feeder pattern, according to agenda documents.
It’s a pattern administrators say they are working to address through expanded teacher training that focuses on encouraging positive behaviors as opposed to punishing students by excluding them from the classroom. Some critics of exclusionary discipline argue it can cause at-risk students to become disengaged from the learning process and more likely to drop out before graduation.
When it comes to classroom misbehavior, how much is too much?
Trustee Dave Rosenthal questioned if too much pressure was being put on teachers to keep students who misbehave in the classroom.
“I’m hearing that there are a lot of things that students are getting away with, and it’s being disruptive,” Rosenthal said. “We are often reminded that kids can’t learn if they aren’t in the classroom. That’s true, but the other kids that are trying to learn have a right to an education too.”
“Is there a push to keep kids in the classroom? Are we ok to remove students when they’re being disruptive and they can’t be controlled?” Rosenthal asked.
Deena Hill, executive director of special education and learning support, acknowledged it was a challenging issue for many teachers.
“At the campuses, we have conversations with teachers about our policies to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Hill said.
The district supports removing students when it is appropriate, Hill said and added that teacher training focuses on communication clearly with students about expectations and outcomes and maintaining fair and consistent policies for all classrooms.
Trustee Jim Rice questioned why additional training wasn’t already mandatory for all teachers and asked why more study was needed if administrators could already move forward with a workable plan.
“Instead of studying this more, why can’t we just talk to the principals and the teachers now?” Rice asked superintendent Charles Dupre. “Sometimes I think we study everything to death. We’re big on studying but short on action.”
Dupre said data indicated that some discipline incident types had decreased more than 50 percent over the last few years.
“So, that shows our actions are paying off,” Dupre said. “But the biggest shift we are having to work toward is getting out of the punishment mindset and into the consequences, growth and development mindset.”
Since trustees set goals requiring students be held responsible for their own behaviors “that means we have to teach our students, not just punish them,” Dupre said.
“Our board also set a goal that every student will have equitable access and that includes the student who has behavior problems, keeping them in the classroom and keeping them learning,” he said. “It also pertains to the student who is trying to learn and study while other students are acting like fools and causing disruptions. So, ultimately it means we have to look at the needs of all the students.”
Dupre said the district couldn’t afford to hire extra social workers and counselors needed to help students with behavior issues. But, he also told trustees he was proud that mandatory DAEP placements decreased last year and only 82 students were sent to alternative programs.
“The numbers are very small, but still each one represents a child whose future is not going to be bright, who will be a drain on society if we cannot help them learn to manage themselves to be successful in school. I just want everyone to know this is very important to all of us and you will be hearing more about this program in the future.”
Board president Jason Burdine thanked Dupre for sharing his insight and thanked Mary Brewster and Dena Hill for their input. The presentation and board member discussions lasted approximately an hour. Trustees Kristin Tassin, Grayle James and K.P. George remained silent and no action was taken by the board.