Disciplinary Alternative Programs Used for Nonviolent Offenses, Study Finds

A study by Texas Appleseed, a “non-profit, public interest law organization,” reports that many students are being sent to alternative schools for minor, nonviolent infractions. The report, entitled Keeping Schools Safe While Reducing Dropouts: Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline, asserts that zero-tolerance policies are inappropriately funneling students into alternative programs, which have a dropout rate five times that of a traditional school.

As the report’s title indicates, there is a strong correlation between being sent to an alternative school for disciplinary reasons and being sent to prison. However, school administrators have significant discretion in sending students with nonviolent behaviors to these programs. As the following chart shows, the majority of Disciplinary Educational Alternative Program (DAEP) referrals are for nonviolent offenses:

graph showing that vast majority of referrals are for discretionary, nonviolent offenses

According to the Houston Chronicle, referrals to DAEPs disproportionately affect students of color and students in special education programs. In some districts such as Pasadena (a suburb of Houston), students in kindergarten or first grade are sent to alternative placements:

Suburban districts tend to be the most the most punitive, said Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed legal director.

Of these, the Pasadena Independent School District was one of the harshest.

It is the only district in Texas to appear on the report’s Top 10 districts with the highest alternative school referral rates each of the last five years. Houston-area school districts that made multiple Top 10 appearances in the past five years also include Galveston (twice), Spring Branch (twice) and Katy (three times).

“These numbers indicate that it is not the behavior that determines whether a student is referred to a (district alternative education program),” the report’s authors wrote. But rather, “it is, in large part, the district where the child goes to school.”

Other districts were spotlighted for sending black or special education students to alternative schools for nonviolent, noncriminal offenses at at least twice the rate of other students for the past five years. They include Humble, Klein, Katy, Pearland, Tomball, Goose Creek, College Station, Bryan and Huntsville. link

While clearly this is an embarrassment for the districts named in the Chronicle article, there are several implications for school leaders:

  • We must do whatever we can to reduce racial and socioeconomic disproportionality in discipline referrals
  • We need to create schools where students are set up for success and safety, not assume that kids will need to be sent to alternative schools
  • We need to create systems and structures to promote positive behavior, not just systems for punishing negative behavior efficiently
  • For the small number of children who cannot be successful or safe in a regular school environment, we need to create alternative schools where students can become successful, not take the next step down the path to prison

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Heroic Teachers in Dangerous Schools

“Persistently Dangerous” Schools

According to an article in USA today, NCLB’s requirement that states and districts identify “persistently dangerous schools” has missed the mark:

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to identify “persistently dangerous” schools and give parents the option of moving their children to other schools. But it gives so much leeway to states and school districts that only those schools diligent about reporting ever come close to making the list.

States can penalize districts by withholding money if they don’t do enough to improve safety.

What’s evolved, safety experts say, is a system where states have made it very hard for schools to be classified as unsafe and schools can report incidents as they see fit. Fewer than 100 of the nation’s 90,000-plus public schools have ever been slapped with the label since the law took effect in 2002. Although studies indicate school crime has been declining since the 1990s, many experts say schools underreport incidents. link

To further complicate the situation, states define “persistently dangerous” in completely different ways. In some states, the label is tied to the number of weapon-related suspensions and expulsions a school has in a year, while others include assaults and incidents that happen en route to and from school.

The lack of consistent reporting mechanisms, coupled with the pressure to avoid the “persistently dangerous” label, has made the NCLB requirement almost counterproductive. If schools report all serious incidents as they should, they increase their risk of receiving an extremely negative label, while schools that intentionally underreport incidents avoid that risk. Lawmakers are considering changes in NCLB’s reauthorization that would address this issue:

A U.S. Department of Education committee is exploring the issue and may recommend changes when Congress takes up reauthorization of the law this year. So far, members have debated whether to reword the “persistently dangerous” label to something less negative such as “safe schools option” so schools might be more willing to report incidents. link

Heroic Hollywood Teachers

Regardless of whether a school earns the “persistently dangerous” label, it is a challenge to work in a school with a high concentration of students who face difficult life circumstances, such as poverty. Even Hollywood has recognized that this important work is difficult.

Tom Moore, a 10th-grade social studies teacher in the Bronx, argues that movies such as Hilary Swank’s new film “Freedom Writers,” unfairly and consistently portray successful urban teachers as heroes. In his op-ed piece in the New York Times, Moore suggests that

the most dangerous message such films promote is that what schools really need are heroes. This is the Myth of the Great Teacher.

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell [the protagonist, played by Swank] sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even. She is forced into making these sacrifices by the aggressive neglect of the school’s administrators, who won’t even let her take books from the bookroom. The film applauds Ms. Gruwell’s dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero.

“Freedom Writers,” like all teacher movies this side of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” is presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom. link

Instead, writes Moore, teachers in struggling schools need to be supported so that normal people – not just a mythical cadre of heroes – can be successful with their students:

It’s no surprise that half the teachers in poor urban schools, like Erin Gruwell herself, quit within five years. (Ms. Gruwell now heads a foundation.)

I don’t expect to be thought of as a hero for doing my job. I do expect to be respected, supported, trusted and paid. And while I don’t anticipate that Hollywood will stop producing movies about gold-hearted mavericks who play by their own rules and show the suits how to get the job done, I do hope that these movies will be kept in perspective. link

Wise words from a practitioner who, though some may regard his work as heroic, is simply trying to be a professional and be treated as such.

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