Progress is underway to implement a ban on pre-K through second grade suspensions and discretionary removals, as evidenced by a presentation given Jan. 9 by district officials to the Austin ISD board of trustees.

According to AISD Superintendent Paul Cruz, the punitive approach utilized in the past no longer fits within the district’s commitment to social and emotional learning and preparing students for college, career and life, thus instigating a change in policy.

“A lot of work has gone in to support the environment and system, and to inform our practice,” Cruz said. “This comprehensive response is much more productive to students and the overall school environment.”

The proposed policy would prohibit suspensions, placement in disciplinary alternative settings, and expulsions for students prior to third grade, except as required by law. Additionally, there is language in the policy which identifies disciplinary removals as a “last resort” for elementary students third through fifth grade.

Trustee Paul Saldaña wondered why the policy wasn’t written to ban the practice for all elementary-aged students.

“That is why we included the language [about third- through fifth-grade students],” said Edmund Oropez, AISD chief officer of teaching and learning. “I believe we are laying the groundwork with pre-K through second grade students to begin looking at third grade through fifth.”

Non-punitive discipline practices suggested in the policy rely on a multi-tiered system of support to provide training for teachers and staff members. The policy’s language promotes the use of restorative practices, cultural proficiency, and social and emotional learning—or the skills necessary to recognize and handle emotions.

Beverly Odom, principal at Linder Elementary, emphasized the impact that trauma within the home has on a child’s behavior. Instead of asking “what is wrong” with a student, Odom said this modernized approach emphasizes a consideration of outside factors.

“We have to listen to our children. Listen with your heart, and not just with your eyes and your ears,” Odom said. “When you do that, you make better decisions for the children.”

Several board members expressed their concern about the disproportionate representation of certain student groups typically suspended for disciplinary reasons—such as English language learners, special education students, and African-American children.

Saldaña suggested some teachers might not understand or have the ability to sympathize with the life experiences of children of color.

“How do we grow critically conscious teachers?” he asked. “Rather than providing prescriptive recipes for curriculum and pedagogy, what toolboxes are we providing to support our educators in becoming more knowledgeable, confident and competent?”

Trustee Jayme Mathias suggested the over-represented groups might be better classified by socioeconomic status than race.

“Are students of color being suspended because of a bias?” he asked “I would like to think it is something else. It’s less about color of your skin than the culture you come from, especially the culture of poverty. Are they students of color, or socioeconomically disadvantaged?”

While she was supportive of a move away from the punitive approach, Trustee Kendall Pace voiced her concerns about adequate staffing to support the revamped system. She worried that the burden of implementing the changes would fall on assistant principals, thus overshadowing other responsibilities.

“You are now asking assistant principals to be mental health professionals,” she said “The policy is beautifully written, it is an admirable goal, and we should strive for it, but just because we are training, I don’t think that is enough.”

Dr. Jane Ross, assistant director of the AISD’s Child Study System, told Pace that the right intervention structures and staff members were on hand to implement the revised policy.

Professional development for teachers and administrators to integrate the policy began in January and will continue through March, as well as the development of tools, processes and protocols for behavior interventionists. Implementation of the policy is scheduled for May 2017, but is contingent upon a forthcoming vote from the board.

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