School discipline policies too harsh, senators say

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State senators worried Tuesday that Texas has gone too far in imposing a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior in schools, noting that minority students are bearing the brunt of the punishment and school police officers are writing too many tickets for insignificant infractions.

Tony Fabelo, an Austin-based criminal justice consultant, told a joint committee meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice and Education Committees that a study following students from seventh grade to high school graduation showed that 83 percent of black male students and 70 percent of black female students statewide faced at least one disciplinary action.

The cases involved students being written up for poor behavior at school officials’ discretion, not for major violations that would mandate disciplinary action, Fabelo said.

He said students with special needs of all races were far more likely than others to face disciplinary action. Still, black students in Texas were 31 percent more likely to be involved in cases of discretionary violations but 23 percent less likely to face mandatory expulsion, refuting any suggestion that black students simply behaved worse than students of other races, according to Fabelo.

Sen. Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, seized on the fact that eight of out of 10 black boys had faced at least one incident of disciplinary action.

“That’s ridiculous, and everyone in this room knows that’s ridiculous,” he said. “I’m tired of being sick and tired of this issue.”

David Anderson, general counsel of the Texas Education Agency, reported that during the 2010-2011 school year, about 14.5 percent of students — or 730,000 across the state — faced some type of disciplinary action. Fully 12 percent faced in-school suspension, with most of the rest being suspended out of school or expelled.

Both he and Fabelo agreed that Texas is a leader among states in ensuring expelled students are referred to another school or juvenile offenders’ program, rather than thrown out on the street.