Austin - A new report shows that Texas school districts issued over 70,000 suspensions to the state’s youngest students — children in pre-k through second grade — during the 2017-18 school year. The report also found that Texas schools significantly decreased out-of-school suspensions for students in early grades that year, the first year after the Legislature virtually banned the practice for pre-k through second grade.
The report by Texans Care for Children found that the number of out-of-school suspensions in pre-k through second grade fell from 36,475 in 2015-16 to 7,640 in 2017-18, the first year after the Legislature passed HB 674. That legislation prohibits out-of-school suspensions in these early grades, with exceptions for very rare circumstances such as pre-k through second grade students bringing weapons or drugs to school. The state law also outlines available strategies that effectively improve behavior while keeping children in class. The reduction in out-of-school suspensions drove a decrease in the total number of suspensions in these early grades — the sum of in-school and out-of-school suspensions — from 101,248 to 70,197.
“We’re pleased to see that the state Legislature succeeded in significantly reducing out-of-school suspensions for four-year-olds and other very young students,” said David Feigen, Early Education Policy Associate at Texans Care for Children. “Suspending kids when they are just starting school not only fails to improve their behavior, but it also undercuts their learning and sends little kids the message that school is not for them.”
However, the data for 2017-18 also reveal a number of challenges.
The continued use of thousands of out-of-school suspensions for these grades in 2017-18 suggests that some districts may have violated the new state law. It is important to note that state data for the 2018-19 school year is not available yet, and it is possible that districts further reduced out-of-school suspensions and improved compliance with state law during that school year.
In addition to concerns about out-of-school suspensions, the analysis of state data also shows that school districts continued to issue a high number of in-school suspensions to students in early grades. The number of in-school suspensions, which are not explicitly addressed by HB 674, remained virtually unchanged, dipping slightly from 64,773 in 2015-16 to 62,557 in 2017-18.
In pre-k through second grade, districts also disproportionately suspended students in foster care, students in special education, Black students, and boys. The greatest disparity was among students in foster care, whom Texas school districts suspended more than three times as often as other students in pre-k through second grade. For Black students and boys, research demonstrates that early childhood teachers scrutinize their behavior more closely, even in controlled academic studies in which children behaved appropriately.
State data also indicate that Killeen ISD and Jasper ISD issued a particularly alarming number of suspensions to their youngest students in 2017-18. Despite representing less than 1.6 percent of the state’s pre-k enrollment, Killeen ISD issued 44 percent of the state’s pre-k in-school-suspensions in 2017-18. The district issued its 1,018 in-school pre-k suspensions to 277 individual students, indicating that many children received multiple suspensions. The district reported to Texans Care for Children that it nearly eliminated out-of-school suspensions in early grades during the 2018-19 school year after accounting for more than half of the state’s out-of-school pre-k suspensions in 2017-18. The district did not comment on its use of in-school suspensions during the 2018-19 school year, for which state data is unavailable.
In 2017-18, Jasper ISD issued in-school pre-k suspensions at the highest rate in Texas, with a rate of 75 in-school suspensions per 100 pre-k students, nearly three times higher than any other district and 82 times higher than the state average of 0.92 per 100 pre-k students. With a pre-k enrollment of only 122 pre-k students, Jasper ISD issued 92 in-school suspensions to 22 individual pre-k students in 2017-18.
The report includes a number of recommendations. It calls on school districts to reduce suspensions in early grades; implement effective strategies to improve behavior and provide teachers and students with the support they need; monitor the disproportionate use of suspensions with particular young student populations; and implement training programs and other efforts to eliminate these disparities. The report also urges state leaders to effectively implement recently passed legislation on suspensions and student mental health and to monitor districts’ overuse of suspensions in pre-k through second grade, among other recommendations.
“State leaders and school districts should work to root out biases that can lead to harsher discipline for Black students and boys even when they behave like other students,” said Mr. Feigen. “Additionally, when five-year-olds have been through child abuse or other trauma that affects their behavior and learning, school districts need to provide support to help them heal, manage their emotions, and improve their behavior rather than just kicking them out of class.”
Unless otherwise noted, the Texas suspension and enrollment data in the report were obtained from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) by Texans Care for Children.
This report follows up on a more extensive report that Texans Care for Children released in 2018 regarding early grade suspensions. That report includes a closer look at effective strategies that districts can implement as they reduce the use of suspensions in early grades.