Dallas Public Schools: A Long-Read on Elementary School Suspensions

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Photo courtesy Flickr/Arul Irudayam
Photo courtesy Flickr/Arul Irudayam

I’ve been working on this deep dive into national and local policy and data regarding discipline for almost a week now, ever since trustee Miguel Solis introduced a proposal to ban most suspensions at the pre-K through second grade level, and place a moratorium on them in the third through fifth grade level at a recent Dallas Independent School District board of trustee briefing.

I’ll be honest – I’ve been reading ahead. I’ve been reading ahead since taking a series of classes on the state of public education, an activity that predates last week’s board briefing by a whole year. I’ve been waiting for someone to address this.

Sometimes, I forget that other people aren’t raging policy wonks who consider US Department of Education materials and other data light reading, so the pushback surprised me. The meeting yielded a whole lot of “who moved my cheese” responses. The comments on subsequent stories written about that meeting yielded much more.

But it was a response from an actual teacher that tells me we all really could benefit from not only a good dose of reality but also a whopping dose of “how did we get here.” I hope to provide some of that today by sharing what I’ve learned about suspensions and elementary students.

“Suspension and kicking kids out of class isn’t classroom management,” said John Hill, teacher and writer of the must-read blog Turn and Talks.  “It’s giving up. Trust me, the kids see it that way too. That’s why after they get back, they don’t change their behavior, at least not permanently. They see that, through your actions, you have stopped caring about them.”

Now, this is a real-live teacher telling you that no, suspension shouldn’t be a tool. It doesn’t make the situation better, it doesn’t equip the child to learn to deal with emotions appropriately, and it certainly doesn’t foster any kind of relationship between a teacher and pupil that could yield positive results later. We’ll see that borne out in the data as we dive.

But I want to point out that Solis’ presentation came on the heels of news that restorative discipline – a pilot program introduced in eight schools – had provided extraordinary results in its first year, reducing suspensions dramatically in every single school. Every. Single. School.

But there’s another wrinkle in Dallas ISD’s current disciplinary policy that goes beyond just “this is goofy and doesn’t work” – as you will see as we start poking around, the use of suspension and other punitive discipline practices  disproportionately affects African American students.

Let’s go back a couple of years, though. The drumbeat for schools to take a hard look at their discipline policies actually came on January 8, 2014, when the DOE and the Department of Justice issued a joint “Dear Colleague” letter. Directives and explainers from the DOE frequently begin with Dear Colleague, but this one became something that kicked off a greater conversation among many school districts nationwide.

“Dear Colleague,” the letter opened, “The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (Departments) are issuing this guidance to assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.”

It went on to seemingly gently and somewhat vaguely remind administrators that they needed to examine their discipline policies to make sure they complied completely with Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

But why was the direction necessary? And how does Dallas ISD measure up?

In a civil rights data collection snapshot provided by the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights, it becomes clear that Dallas ISD isn’t the Lone Ranger when it comes to elementary suspensions disproportionately affecting African American students.

According to the Department of Education, on a national level African-American students represent about 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but account for almost 50 percent of preschool children suspended more than once. To compare, white students represented 43 percent of preschool enrollment but only 26 percent of children suspended more than once.

“Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students,” the snapshot revealed. “On average, five percent of white students are suspended, compared to 16 percent of black students. While boys receive more than two out of three suspensions, black girls are suspended at higher rates (12 percent) than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys.”

And it’s not any better in Texas. Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit social justice agency, has been tracking elementary suspensions and discipline policies. In its report “Suspended Childhood,” the numbers are alarming.

  • In the 2013-2014 school year, Texas schools issued 88,310 out-of-school suspensions to young children.
  • 2,513 suspensions to pre-K students
  • 36,753 suspensions to kindergarten through second-grade students
  • Black students make up about 13% of the elementary school population in Texas, but they account for 42% of all Pre-K through 5th-grade out-of-school suspensions.
Graph courtesy Texas Appleseed.
Graph courtesy Texas Appleseed.

In Dallas ISD, for the 2013-2014 school year, 5,263 Pre-K through fifth-grade students were suspended, from a total of 88,963 students total from those grade levels. That equates to six disciplinary actions for every 100 students.

And those state figures might not even be high enough, the group said. “These numbers are conservative. Data for some districts are masked to protect students’ identities when the total number of discipline actions is relatively low (between one and four),” the report said.  “Though we have only analyzed the lowest numbers for this report, the number of out-of-school suspensions for Pre-K through 5th graders could be as high as 96,107.”

And the damage done by overuse of suspensions is quantifiable. “Young students who are expelled or suspended are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not,” the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services said in a report.

So all of this, combined with a gentle direction to take a good look at discipline data, spurred some schools to start real conversations about whether or not their policies were benefiting the adults who dealt with the students, or the students themselves.

Take Seattle, for instance. Last year schools there began taking a hard look at their discipline rates and were alarmed by what they found. “Statewide, more than 8,716 students younger than sixth grade were suspended or expelled in 2012-13, and patterns in Seattle suggest that a disproportionate number were children of color,” an article in the Seattle Times said. “In response, a handful of districts are training teachers to de-escalate outbursts, instead of immediately resorting to punishment. Denver and San Francisco swear by restorative justice, which aims to rebuild frayed relationships.”

Closer to home, Houston Independent School District also began the push to change its elementary school disciplinary policy since last year.

Houston ISD also found itself facing data that indicated that a disproportionate number of African American students were involved in discipline incidents on the elementary school level. In fact, during the 2014-2015 school year, 2,673 disciplinary incidents were reported for elementary school students, according to an article on the district’s website.

“Though African American students make up just 25 percent of the district population, they were involved in 70 percent of disciplines incidents for students in pre-kindergarten through second grade. Hispanic students, who make up 62 percent of the district population, were involved in 26 percent of the discipline incidents. White students, who make up 8 percent of the district population, were involved in just 3 percent of discipline incidents,” the article said.

The district also pointed out that the proposed policy was in line with a larger national movement. “The policy change is in line with similar school districts around the country,” the article added. “Districts in Miami, Los Angeles and Seattle all are in the process of implementing similar policies, with some districts even going so far as to expand the plan to include all elementary grades.”

It took four tries (in fact, the Texas Observer’s Patrick Michels wrote that the district received the same kind of objections Solis’ proposal received at the briefing) to get the measure passed, but the new policy will go into effect with the 2016-2017 school year, Houston ISD Chief Student Support Officer Mark Smith said Thursday.

“We gave ourselves six months to get it implemented,” Smith said. “It will start with the next school year.”

The policy, which passed in February, is similar to Solis’ proposal in that a ban on all non-mandatory suspensions for pre-K through second grade and a reduction in third grade through fifth grade will be in effect. Mandatory suspensions for things that are considered “zero tolerance” infractions required legally are not included.

And from the sounds of it, the district hit the ground running once the policy was approved by the school board. Smith said his department has been busy getting all the supports in place for the next school year, and mapping out training for over the summer.

“I have completely revamped my student support departments for this,” he added. A new 35-person department is in play just to support the new policy, which features three tiers of support beginning with identifying and training teacher trainers that will help teach other teachers on classroom management and ending with psychologists available for children identified as needing crisis interventions. Training teams that can go in and help schools with specific issues are also available.

“Basically, all schools need someone on campus that works with kids on social and emotional needs every day,” Smith said.

Over the summer, the district will hold a big professional learning series that will focus not only on the standard nuts and bolts of school administration but also on more effective discipline strategies. “The major focuses are social and emotional learning,” Smith said.

Smith also said that the aforementioned “Dear Colleague” letter actually was the beginning of a greater push by the DOE and DOJ for schools to take a deep dive into their discipline data.

“That letter was the first step – but they didn’t leave that alone,” Smith said. “One of the things they did last summer is a convening of educators in Washington.”  Smith said he attended that meeting with two principals – one elementary and one high school. The national data intrigued them, and during a lull in the meeting they had a chance to look at their own district’s data.

“All three of us had a jaw-drop,” Smith said, adding that their numbers were worse than Dallas ISD when it came to suspension rates of African-American elementary school students.  “It was very much unintended” that these discipline policies were so disproportionately affecting African American students, he added, but the overwhelming feeling was that “we’ve got to do our part to start turning this around immediately.”

The cost is not small, Smith agrees. But even though Houston ISD is in Chapter 41 after it found it was facing a $107 million budget shortfall for the next school year, this policy was deemed a priority. When schools are under Chapter 41, the state requires districts deemed “property-wealthy” to send tax dollars back to the state. The money is then re-distributed to “property-poor” districts.

“We’re cutting over $100 million from our budget,” Smith said, “But we’re still doing this because it’s that important.”

Another fun fact, while we’re talking about money? Districts lose money every time a student is suspended because districts receive money for every day a child is present for an instructional day – something called weighted average daily attendance. For instance, another report by Texas Appleseed reveals that in 2010-2011, Dallas ISD lost about $1.6 million alone in daily attendance thanks to out-of-school suspensions. The number becomes even more substantial when you add in other disciplinary methods.

So let’s go look now at whether or not suspensions are even effective. Short answer? No. If anything, it takes children who are already dealing with the trauma of poverty, family difficulties or other outside-the-school issues that affect the ability to process emotions and conflict appropriately and gives them zero positive guidance on how to avoid the behavior in the future.

It even merits an official term – Adverse Childhood Experiences.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the National Association of School Psychologists:

“An increasing number of schools apply a zero tolerance approach to behaviors that do not necessarily threaten the safety or welfare of others.  Furthermore, harsh consequences are invoked automatically, irrespective of the severity of the misbehavior or the circumstance involved, and without consideration of the negative impact of these consequences on the welfare of the offending student or on the overall climate of the school.

Research repeatedly has demonstrated that suspension, expulsion, and other punitive consequences are not the solution to dangerous and disruptive student behaviors. In fact evidence indicates that dangerous students do not become less dangerous to others when they are excluded from appropriate school settings; quite often they become more so.”

And a report from the Massachusetts Advocates for Children:

“A better understanding of the difficulties traumatized children have in modulating their emotions and behaviors should lead schools to seek out therapeutic and positive behavioral supports, rather than responding with punitive measures such as suspensions and expulsions.”

And in the book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Eric Jensen writes:

“Some teachers may interpret students’ emotional and social deficits as a lack of respect or manners, but it is more accurate and helpful to understand that the students come to school with a narrower range of appropriate emotional responses than we expect. The truth is that many children simply don’t have the repertoire of necessary responses.”

And local education phenom Michelle Kinder of the Momentous Institute wrote in a recent op-ed:

“Often, kids interpret excessive punishment as a sign that adults are out of control as well. Not only are these feelings and stressors too big for me to handle, they think, but they’re also too big for the adults in my life. And for many educators, suspension already represents an option issued only when they have tried all else.”

So what kind of discipline is most effective, across the board? Well, as I mentioned earlier, the great results restorative discipline has net so far in pilot schools shows promise. In the same op-ed, Kinder listed three steps Dallas ISD could take to make sure that their elementary discipline policy is both effective and fair. Those steps, paraphrased (seriously, go click on the link and read her excellent piece) are: teacher training on the impact of trauma and toxic stress on the brain of a child, and how that affects their ability to self-modulate; providing more mental health professionals coaching teachers and providing services to children; and helping children understand why they feel the way they do so they can address their behaviors themselves through things like regulating their breathing, for instance, and helping them improve their capacity for things like gratitude and optimism.

It will be interesting to see where Dallas ISD will turn for its training if and when the board approves a policy. The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work has its “Texas Schools Restorative Discipline Project,” which is sponsored by the Texas Education Agency. The project conducted a 3-year study on the use of restorative discipline, and now offers training to school administrators. Or maybe the district will seek to avail itself of able partners in the city, including the Momentous Institute, healthcare providers, and other agencies.

But what I do know, and what I hope you’ve also come to realize, is that suspensions only help the adults deal with the situation. One trustee last week railed against this policy, calling it an aspirin when we need a root canal. But I would posit that the act of suspending a four-year-old is an aspirin, a temporary fix that does nothing to help the four-year-old learn to become a student. If we are serious about wanting to address the school-to-prison pipeline, we have to start somewhere – and I happen to think that the answer starts with not suspending babies in the first years of their educational experience.

If you’d like to read more about effective discipline and classroom management, I recommend checking out Responsive Classroom,  the Children’s Defense Fund, and ACEs Too High.


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Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson lives in a 1961 Fox and Jacobs home with her husband, a second-grader, and Conrad Bain the dog. If she won the lottery, she'd by an E. Faye Jones home. She's taken home a few awards for her writing, including a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Online News Association, the Education Writers Association, the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and the Society of Professional Journalists. She doesn't like lima beans or the word moist.

Reader Interactions


  1. Kathy says

    Wow! What an excellent article and totally correct. Brain development is affected by stress and poverty creates stress in the family. Teaching or guiding children about feelings and how to cope with them is vitally important but many if not most American parents don’t know how to do this. Loving guidance with positive discipline is extremely effective in teaching good behavior skills. Punishment alone is ineffective and creates anger in the child, not self-awareness or understanding of how our actions affect others.

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