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AISD talks prison pipeline; reviews current system

Wednesday, October 7, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

At Monday’s dialogue meeting, AISD trustees took their first look at the state of the district’s “school-to-prison pipeline” system, examining the district’s policies and practices that push students out of the classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Speaking on behalf of municipal courts at the meeting, Judge Sherry Statman said that even misdemeanor offenses carry lifelong consequences for AISD students who enter into the system at a young age.

“We are essentially the first intake valve on the legal side of the school-to-prison pipeline,” Statman said. “A Class C theft, for example, could prevent a DREAM Act child from possibly getting citizenship.”

But, in a revelation that did not surprise many board members, AISD and other partnering governmental entities currently have many, somewhat disorganized, programs addressing multiple issues that could lead to a student’s future incarceration.

“What we see here … is a lot of internal stuff going on in schools,” said District 3 Trustee Ann Teich, thumbing through a long program list. “This is heavy on internal resources, but I think we really need to work on our outside resources.”

According to board documents provided to trustees, AISD is spending multiple millions on in-house and out-of-house programs to address potential offenders before students enter the criminal justice system. These initiatives include graduation coaches, youth mentorship programs, residential addiction programs, social service specialists and behavioral-based staff and student training, among others.

Interim Chief of Schools Edmund Oropez did not present data measuring the effectiveness of individual programs, in part because such data is not available for every program. However, he was able to tell board members that the number of students taken off campus for discretionary disciplinary reasons has dropped in the last seven years.

Texas school districts are mandated to remove students from campus if they commit certain offenses, such as bringing a gun to school. But staff is given some discretion in other cases, Oropez said.

According to board documents, 3.4 percent of AISD students were taken off campus in the 2009-2010 school year for nonmandatory disciplinary reasons. The number has dropped to 1.3 percent for the 2013-2014 school year.

Oropez added that AISD’s discipline data shows that African-American and Hispanic males were more harshly punished than AISD’s other student populations from 2008-2011. Staff members chose to remove those students from campus more often for nonmandatory offenses instead of using other methods, he said.

“Surprisingly, it was the Hispanic administrators that had a higher percentage of (optionally) disciplining Hispanic students. The same was true with African-American students,” Oropez said.

As a result, AISD better educated staff members about the trend, Oropez said. In addition, the district now requires staff members to receive administrative approval in order to remove an offending student from a campus. This step added a check to the system, Oropez said.

In regard to mandatory charges, however, Travis County Juvenile Court Associate Judge Texanna Davis added that the number of students graduating with a criminal record is expected to drop given the 84th Texas Legislature’s passage of House Bill 2398.

The new law, which went into effect Sept. 1, reduces a former Class C misdemeanor charge for excessive truancy to a civil fine and largely leaves school districts in charge of ensuring student attendance.

Davis presented trustees with a list of program and funding options available at the local court level, including a juvenile drug court and mental health court that seek to provide substance abuse treatment as well as promote pre-adjudicated mental health services to students.

However, she also highlighted a nonprofit organization, Life Anew Restorative Justice, as an effective program that prevents AISD students from entering the court system.

“Martin (Middle School) had over 30 referrals that they were ready to file with truancy court,” Davis said, recalling last year. “That program took over all of those cases, and none of those cases went to court except for one. … So, I have to tell you, I’m a big advocate of restorative justice.”

Life Anew is currently in its second year at Martin Middle School and Akins High School. The program uses group counseling techniques that promote social and emotional learning in order to stem future behavior problems.

Akins student Mercy Castillo, who has participated in Life Anew, spoke to board members Monday to connect the dots.

“Our emotions affect our academics,” she said. “My eighth-grade year, my uncle died, and I got depression. It affected the way I learned. I just didn’t want to be there or talk to anybody.”

Castillo and other students and teachers who have participated in Life Anew told board members that behavior and subsequent discipline and academic problems often stem from personal problems at home. Teachers do not always effectively address the emotional component behind troublesome behaviors and instead focus on punishment or academics, they said. Restorative justice extends conversations among parties in order to uncover the reasons behind behaviors.

Life Anew costs $35,000 to $50,000 per campus to implement, according to district documents.

Photo: Mercy Castillo, along with other students in AISD’s restorative justice program Life Anew, elaborate on how the program helped break the “school-to-prison pipeline” for them to board members Monday.

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