May 05, 2013

How to Help Students Stay in School

DISD Officer Bernard Johnson keeps an eye out at Oliver Wendell Homes Middle School in Dallas. A district spokeswoman says the number of citations in the district decreased during the last year, thanks to an effort between DISD police and the schools. Photo by Michael Ainsworth/Dallas Morning News.


By Sarah Pressley and Rebekah Skelton
For InvestigaTexas and The Dallas Morning News

At age 15, Charlie Burton was on a path to prison.

That’s when he left school and soon got into trouble. He landed behind bars three times, for robbery and a drug-related charge. He ended up serving 25 years.

But Burton, during his second stint in prison, started taking classes through the Windham School District, in partnership with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He ultimately earned a GED.

“I was a little bit older and a little bit smarter, and I said, ‘I’m not gonna let this time to go waste,’” Burton said.

Released in 2008, he now works as a community outreach coordinator for state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston.

Burton, 63, who is black, is a vocal advocate of finding ways to help students and keep them in school.

“When a young person drops out of school, it leads them toward that prison life because they’re leaving that structure and going to the streets where there’s a whole different type of environment,” he said.

In Texas’ public schools, blacks are disproportionately represented among students removed from classrooms, given misdemeanor tickets, arrested or expelled, according to an InvestigaTexas study of state and local records.

Such disciplinary actions among students can lead to higher dropout and incarceration rates and contributes to what has been described nationally as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The consequences can be widespread and severe — for students, parents and taxpayers.

“If you don’t graduate from high school, you are more likely to die at a younger age than your cohort, you are more likely to be unemployed, to be on welfare support, to end up in prison multiple times,” said Cecil Reynolds, a retired professor of educational psychology at Texas A&M University.

According to the InvestigaTexas study:

Black students made up nearly a quarter of the Dallas Independent School District’s enrollment in the 2011-12 school year, but they accounted for 50 percent of citations and school arrests.

Hispanic students make up a little less than 70 percent of enrollment, and 38 percent of those who were cited and arrested.

White students accounted for a little less than 5 percent of the DISD population, and 11 percent of the students cited and arrested.

DISD spokeswoman Libby Daniels said the district could not comment directly on the disparity because it doesn’t analyze the data.

But DISD Police Chief Craig Miller said the department offers assistance to administrators in an unbiased manner.

“I fully believe in my heart that no decision we ever make is made on the basis of race or sex,” Miller said. “We enforce the laws that are appropriate based upon the state penal code and we move forward.”

Daniels also said the number of citations in DISD decreased during the last year, thanks to an effort between DISD police and the schools.

“Our preference is always to have students in class engaged in learning,” she said.

DISD Board President Lew Blackburn said that part of the explanation for the disparate numbers may be a lack of cultural understanding.

“One thing we’re looking at is working more with our teachers to be more culturally responsive, more culturally literate,” he said.

Statewide disparities

Disparities can be found statewide.

Black students, who accounted for about 13 percent of the Texas student population, received nearly a quarter of referrals to disciplinary alternative education programs in the 2011-12 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency.

The percentage of discretionary placements for black students was more than double that of the student population. These are placements in which a district has chosen an alternative education program for a student instead of other forms of discipline, such as suspension.

Mandatory placements, which are typically court-ordered, more closely reflected the demographics of the overall student population in Texas.

If minority students are pulled from mainstream classrooms because of discipline problems, they are effectively segregated from the rest of the student body.

That is not only how the school-to-prison pipeline begins, experts say, but it’s also a major contributing factor to the educational and racial disparity within prisons.

About 42 percent of Texas inmates don’t have a high school diploma or GED, according to a 2011 report by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

The prison system operates its own school district to help inmates improve their education. Veronica Casanova, director of instruction for the department’s Windham School District, said many inmates were in and out of school growing up and didn’t get the education they needed.

“One of the things our teachers do hear [from the prisoners] is that this is the first time that someone took the time,” she said.

‘Get tough’ measures

In the late 1980s, “zero tolerance” measures spread to schools throughout the nation. The policies called for mandatory punishment — regardless of mistakes or individual circumstances — for drug use or possession, or weapons on campus.

Over the years, zero tolerance has expanded to include lesser offenses, such as shoving, disruption of classes or using profanity. Students can be ticketed and land in adult municipal court.

As the no-tolerance policies spread, police and security departments set up shop in public schools. Today, 179 school districts in Texas have their own police departments, according to the Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education.

“Once you put law enforcement in schools, you open the door to have citations in schools,” said Matt Simpson, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Texas. “What works in the street may or may not be the way we want law enforcement to operate in schools … but if you give somebody a hammer, they’re going to hammer with it.”

Miller, the DISD chief, said his department understands its job as a fully functioning police department not only to give citations and investigate offenses, but also to educate, mentor and counsel students on crime prevention.

In school, out of jail

Some experts say there are ways to keep kids in school — and out of jail.

Amarillo schools have a program that teaches kids what behaviors are appropriate and follows that up with positive — and, when needed, negative — reinforcement.

Chad Huseman, a longtime district administrator, said some schools there use a “cash” system in which students receive play money for good behavior. After earning enough, they can buy small prizes or classroom privileges, such as eating lunch with the teacher.

Huseman said the model, called Positive Behavior Support, brought a reduction in “negative consequences” since it was introduced in 2004. Another alternative to zero-tolerance policies is “youth court,” in which kids who have gotten into trouble are tried by their peers.

In a youth court, the judge, jury, prosecutor and defending attorney are all students. Advocates say that keeps students in school but also holds them accountable for their actions. Typical sentencing options for youth courts include community service, oral or written apologies and educational workshops.

“It’s a restorative justice approach,” said Simpson, the ACLU policy strategist. “Instead of taking somebody and throwing them into court and removing them from the community, you make them answer for their actions in front of their peers.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of a special report on resegregation and disparity in Texas public schools. The report includes articles on charter schools, magnet schools, Hispanic students and state funding. The report is also available at The Dallas Morning News.