Breaking Schools’ Rules: Disproportionate Impact

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

Last week, we introduced a blog series dedicated to sharing information from the new Breaking Schools’ Rules report published by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Texas A & M. This edition shares some shocking statistics regarding disproportionate use of harsh discipline on children of color and children with special needs. 

Racial Disparities

It is not news that school discipline disproportionately impacts students of color. But, before this study, possible explanations for this disparity included that African Americans may disproportionately come from low-income households, are overrepresented among special education students, or may miss more school than other races.  This study controlled for these factors, showing that race is, in fact, a predictive factor for whether a student will be disciplined.   What’s more, the majority of the punishments were discretionary. The numbers are astonishing:

  •    75% of African Americans (83% for males) between seventh and twelfth grades were involved in the school disciplinary system, compared to 64.8% for Hispanic students and 46.9% for white students.
  •    A much larger percentage of African American (26.2%) and Hispanic (18%) students were placed in out-of-school suspensions for their first violation than were whites (9.9%).
  •    About one-fourth of African American students (25.7%) had more than 11 discretionary disciplinary actions, compared to about one-fifth of Hispanic students (18.1%) and less than one-tenth of white students (9.5%).


Special Education Disparities

Similarly to racial disparities in discipline, nearly all of the suspensions or expulsions of special education students (98.1%) resulted from a discretionary decision by a school official—not a mandatory removal under state law.  Certain disabilities—like emotional disturbance—correlated with increased incidents of discipline.

  •   74.6% of the students who qualified for special education services were suspended or expelled at least once between their seventh-and twelfth-grade school years.
  •    Whereas nine out of ten students identified as emotionally disturbed were removed from the classroom at least once because of a violation of their local code of conduct, just a little more than one in three (37%) of the students with a disability such as autism or mental retardation were similarly involved in the disciplinary system.
  • Approximately half (48.4%) of the students coded as having an emotional disturbance were suspended or expelled 11 or more times.

This study leaves no room to doubt that both children of color and children who qualify for special education services are disciplined at a higher rate than their counterparts.  The discriminatory impacts of these actions need to be addressed in order to ensure that all children can learn in a supportive environment. Please visit Educate, Don’t Incarcerate to find out what you can do to help. Next Edition:  Abuse of discretionary expulsion offenses

Please, For the Sake of Texas’ Future!

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is considering adopting supplemental science materials for Texas’ public schools.  If some SBOE members get their way, these materials will include intelligent design.  For the sake of our children and our Constitution, we urge the SBOE to uphold the separation of church and state.

Today, our Director of Public Policy and Advocacy, Rebecca Robertson, testified to the SBOE, arguing that public school science textbooks are not the place to try to advance political and religious agendas.  She argued that teaching intelligent design as science would not only violate the separation of church and state, but would also put Texas school districts at risk of facing expensive litigation, would lower our quality of education, and would hurt Texas’ economy.  Read her testimony here.

Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Summary of Findings

By Kirsten Bokenkamp
Communications Coordinator

The ACLU of Texas works hard to help keep Texas’ children in school and out of the criminal justice system.  Related to this issue, the Council of State Governments and Texas A & M have published an unprecedented study that explores how school discipline relates to students’ success and juvenile justice involvement.  Over the coming months, the ACLU of Texas will post a blog series, named after the report, “Breaking Schools’ Rules.” This first edition summarizes some of the key findings. 

From the Council of State Governments’ press release:

  • Of the nearly 1 million public secondary school students studied, about 15 percent were suspended or expelled 11 times or more; nearly half of these students with 11 or more disciplinary actions were involved in the juvenile justice system.
  • Only three percent of the disciplinary actions were for conduct in which state law mandated suspensions and expulsions; the rest were made at the discretion of school officials primarily in response to violations of local schools’ conduct codes.
  • African-American students and those with particular educational disabilities were disproportionately disciplined for discretionary actions.
  • Repeated suspensions and expulsions predicted poor academic outcomes. Only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated from high school during the study period, and 31 percent of students disciplined one or more times repeated their grade at least once.
  • Schools that had similar characteristics, including the racial composition and economic status of the student body, varied greatly in how frequently they suspended or expelled students.

This report will be extremely helpful in our fight for juvenile justice in Texas, and will assist us in keeping our policymakers informed about the school-to-prison pipeline that is all too real in the lives of way too many young Texans.  Stay tuned each week as we share different components of this report, and how it will inform our work.  We also post our blogs on facebook.  Are you a fan yet? 

Ghosts of SBOEs Past

By Frank Knaack
Associate Director for Policy and Advocacy

Here we go again… Next week the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) will consider the adoption of supplemental science materials for Texas’ public schools.  You may wonder why this is a problem.  Well, in 2009 some members of the SBOE succeeded in injecting creationist/intelligent design arguments into the science standards, and the materials being considered now were developed for these flawed standards. 

The separation of church and state is a cornerstone of our constitutional system, but that has not stopped some SBOE members from ignoring recognized experts and injecting their ideological beliefs into public school classrooms across the state.   Apparently, going against the constitution is not enough to stop this abuse of power at the expense of Texas’ children.  But, maybe the financial costs of approving unconstitutional materials will sway them.  The case below shows just how expensive it can get.

In 2004, the Dover Pennsylvania school board amended its biology curriculum to state that “[s]tudents will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design” (similar to the amendments added by the SBOE in 2009).  As could be expected, parents were outraged and they challenged the board’s decision in court (with the help of the ACLU of Pennsylvania).  In 2005, a George W. Bush appointed federal judge ruled in favor of the outraged parents. Judge John Jones ruled that “it is unconstitutional to teach ID [intelligent design] as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom.”  Because of its unconstitutional action, the Dover school district had to pay over $1,000,000 in legal fees (and that was after the parents’ attorneys agreed to waive their fees that would have cost the district an additional million dollars).  There is a lesson here.  How can SBOE members invite such litigation against already-strapped school districts just so they can achieve their personal ideological goals?  (Don’t forget that the Texas Legislature just passed a new budget with record cuts for public school education.)

Unfortunately, the double whammy of approving unconstitutional materials and incurring massive legal costs and has not deterred some SBOE members from their quest to have the government dictate religious beliefs to Texas children.   As the Texas Freedom Network pointed out, the newly appointed SBOE Chairwoman Barbara Cargill is determined to inject her personal ideological beliefs into the science materials next week.  This is not good news for Texas.

While we hope that the SBOE will do the right thing and follow the law, if history is any predictor, we have our doubts.  That is why we need your help.  Please contact your SBOE member and demand that the SBOE remove personal ideology from the curriculum and textbook review processes and instead follow the advice of biologists and other relevant experts.  Texas’ children deserve nothing less.

Case of Humberto Leal Isn’t About Death Penalty: It’s About Following the Rule of Law and the Safety of Americans Abroad

By Terri Burke
Executive Director

We’ve gotten some comments about our Community Action Network (CAN) email last week calling for a stay of execution for a Mexican national set to die today, July 7, in the Texas death chamber. I want to further explain our position and share why we feel it is so important for Texans and all Americans to heed this plea.

Although the ACLU does oppose the death penalty, the Leal matter is not about the pros and cons of the death penalty. Further, we agree that illegal actions and behaviors should be addressed and appropriate punishment meted out without regard for a person’s status in this country. We believe in the Rule of Law; therefore, if we as a nation, as a people, begin to behave like the lowest common denominator, then we become no better than those we would judge and punish.

Unlike many other nations, in the U.S., every criminal defendant – citizen or non-citizen – has a right to an attorney. An international treaty, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, signed in 1963 by the U.S. and 159 other nations, obligates us to ensure that citizens of other countries arrested in the U.S. know they have the right to contact their embassies. U.S. citizens have reciprocal rights in every other signatory country. Given the state of the world today, we don’t want to appear to be thumbing our noses at an international agreement, putting Americans at risk while traveling abroad.

In 2004, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held that Mr. Leal was entitled to a hearing on the consular rights violation in his case. President Bush, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Obama Administration have all acknowledged that the United States is obligated to comply with ICJ’s decision. President Obama has asked that the Leal execution be stayed.

Congress has introduced legislation that would require implementation of the ICJ’s decision. The bill before Congress has the support of the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State.

Justice requires a stay of Mr. Leal’s execution while Congress acts to make sure we fulfill our obligations as a nation of laws, not of vengeance, privilege, or special interests.

The Good and the Bad from the 82nd Legislature

Matt Simpson
Policy Strategist

We aren’t going to lie, there was a lot of ugly in the 82nd Legislature, yet we are proud to report that the ACLU of Texas achieved some incredible successes despite the contentious atmosphere of the proceedings.  Many of the bills we supported passed, and we were successful in stopping many bills that would have been bad for Texas.

We worked with business leaders, civil liberties organizations, law enforcement, and religious leaders to stop various anti-immigrant proposals.  These proposals would have encouraged racial profiling and undermined public safety.  Although numerous proposals were offered, and we were backed into a corner when the so-called “Sanctuary Cities” bill was added to the Special Legislative Session, no anti-immigrant bill successfully passed.  Phew!

In addition to holding off the anti-immigrant charge at the Legislature, our other major successes came in the area of decriminalizing school discipline. Current policies and laws that require ticketing students for minor disciplinary infractions at school push youth into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, interrupting or altogether halting their education.  Futures have been ruined by these policies, and with more youth in jail – and out of a job – these policies certainly have not benefited the economy.   Additionally, criminal justice responses to minors’ misbehavior are more costly and less effective than other methods of encouraging good behavior at school. Here is an overview of our decriminalizing school discipline successes:

  • The Corporal Punishment, Ticketing, and Use of Force Bill (HB 359) addresses three separate school discipline issues.  First, it grants parents the power to determine if their children can be subjected to corporal punishment at school.  Second, it exempts children in sixth grade and under from being charged with three separate Class C misdemeanors for engaging in childish misbehavior on school property.  Third, it ensures that school peace officers report their use of restraints on special education students. 
  • The Truancy Bill (SB 1489) aims to reduce the number of youth and adults sent into juvenile and adult criminal justice systems for truancy.  In 2009 alone there were approximately 120,000 Class C misdemeanor charges filed against Texas students for failure to attend school, a 40 percent increase since 2005.
  • The Record Sealing Bill (HB 961) will better allow youth and young adults to move past childhood mistakes by lowering the age at which individuals may have juvenile records sealed and/or restricted.
  • The Anti-Bullying Bill (HB 1942) requires school district policies to include a procedure for reporting, investigating, and responding to instances of bullying on their campuses.   

Along with the passage of these good school discipline bills, two important criminal justice reforms passed this session. 

  • The Asset Forfeiture Bill (SB 316) reforms the way that asset forfeiture laws can be used.  In the past, asset forfeiture laws were sometimes misused by law enforcement to intimidate individuals (disproportionately African Americans) into relinquishing personal property in an effort to avoid being put in jail. 
  • The Anti-SLAPP Bill (HB 2973) allows for safeguards against frivolous lawsuits targeting individuals with the purpose of quelling the individual’s free speech rights. 

These wins will make a difference in the lives of many Texans, and we are proud to have had such a successful session. But, while we were able to successfully advocate for these bills and stop all of the anti-immigrant proposals, a few bad bills still passed:

  • The Voter ID Bill (SB 14) requires proof of identification at polling places, which creates more roadblocks to voting despite the already very low voter turnout rate in Texas. Voters must already show proof of identification to register to vote. A second show of ID isn’t necessary and there’s no evidence of voter fraud in Texas.
  • The Sonogram Bill (HB 15) intrudes on the doctor-patient relationship and forces a woman to go through an invasive sonogram procedure prior to undergoing an abortion.  
  • The Sexting Bill (SB 407), well-meaning but poorly crafted legislation that creates a new crime for youth that send naked images to friends or classmates, a practice that more than 20 percent of youth engage in nationwide.  There are better non-criminal ways to address this widespread youthful indiscretion without having to place children before a judge.

Between working to undo these unwise new laws and keeping the momentum going on the school discipline successes, we don’t have much time to rest. There is still a lot to do to protect the civil liberties of all Texans.  We assure you we aren’t going anywhere and will keep on fighting for your rights!  To follow the work we do, find us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter!  And remember, to show your support for the work we do, please vote for us as “Best Activist Organization” in the Austin Chronicle’s Best of Austin contest.