Link between discipline, incarceration is intolerable
By VERONICA GARCIA | Houston Chronicle
April 19, 2008 Editorial
While Texans agonize over high school graduation rates and dropout rates and falling standardized test scores, another crisis looms, one that may underline some of these other systemic educational problems.
The Texas Education Agency reports that statewide at every single grade level African-American students are overrepresented in the number of students who public schools suspend to disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEP). Latinos are overrepresented in 6th through 11th grades.
For example, while first grade, African-American students made up 14 percent of the general student population, they made up 47 percent of those sent to DAEPs in the 2005-2006 school year. Despite the fact that there are no data to support the assumption that these groups of students misbehave more than others, research by the American Psychological Association states that African-American students may be more severely punished for less serious or subjective reasons.
Also, while students receiving special education account for about 12 percent of the general student body population, they make up 22 percent of the DAEP population, raising concerns of potential violations of federal disability laws.
In the Katy Independent School District, 9 percent of the students are receiving special education, 31 percent are part of the DAEP population. African-Americans make up 9 percent of the student population yet they are 24 percent of the alternative programs.
Last month, when a United Nations committee urged the United States to make sweeping reforms to policies and laws affecting racial and ethnic minorities, one of the specific problems to which they referred was the school-to-prison pipeline, the intersection between our education and criminal justice systems. It's the criminalization of student behavior through zero tolerance policies that embrace punishment over education.
These practices disproportionately target minority students, as well as students with disabilities, for nonviolent, noncriminal behavior.
To be sure, schools have a duty to maintain discipline and order to ensure a safe environment and promote learning. The contradiction is that the discipline practices through which some schools attempt to achieve these goals ultimately funnel students out of our schools and place them at risk of future involvement with the criminal justice system.
A 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice cites a consistent decrease in juvenile crime since 1994; yet, between 1995 and 2006 Texas increased the number of juveniles in custody. Also, in 2005, Texas had the third highest adult incarceration rate in the country.
Such high rates of incarceration have a greater impact on people of color and are not sound policy decisions considering the high rates of recidivism and the economics of maintaining these facilities.
In tracing the roots of these problems, many advocates and researchers are finding that these trends begin from within our school systems. About 13 years after the inception of DAEPs, in answer to legislation passed last year, TEA is now drafting minimum standards for DAEPs.
Currently the standards are so minimal that schools are not even required to run these programs a full school day.
Improvements in school discipline must happen at the individual campus level.
We must address and change the reasons Texas students are removed from the classroom.
The ACLU of Texas calls on our state leaders to act on the U.N. recommendations to address the systemic discrimination and injustice that exists in our own back yard.
Garcia is a litigation fellow with the ACLU of Texas Foundation and has spent the past year studying the school-to-prison pipeline in Texas.