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Austin ISD board of trustees hears public support for suspension ban

Austin ISD will no longer suspend pre-K through second grade

Wednesday, March 1, 2017 by Kara Nuzback

The Austin Independent School District’s board of trustees voted unanimously to approve a ban on suspending students from pre-K through second grade at a board meeting last night.

Trustee Jayme Mathias moved to approve the ban, which also prohibits placing students younger than third grade in a disciplinary alternative setting, except as required by law. Mathias committed his support only after Superintendent Paul Cruz assured him the district was ready to implement the change and monitor its effects.

Seven other trustees expressed support for the ban, including Cindy Anderson, Julie Cowan, Amber Elenz, Edmund Gordon, Paul Saldaña, Ann Teich and Yasmin Wagner.

“We’re talking about 4-, 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds,” Wagner said. “In not moving this forward, we are leaving kids behind.”

Most trustees noted the disproportionate number of African-American boys who were suspended and said they saw the ban as a chance to make a cultural change in the district.

Board President Kendall Pace was the only trustee who expressed some hesitation about the motion. She said she would rather support the ban if it were implemented in phases and complete with a plan, and said the approval felt like a “superficial social justice win.”

Cruz argued that the ban was not a new concept and that AISD has a plan for implementation.

Edmund Oropez, chief officer of teaching and learning, said the plan includes adding nine additional staff members to support classroom management. He also said the next phase of implementation includes communicating the change with parents and getting them involved.

Prior to the vote, 30 speakers, including parents, teachers and students, addressed the change.

Most speakers supported the ban but urged the board to provide more support for classroom teachers dealing with students who have disciplinary issues.

Fatima Smith, a kindergarten teacher at Govalle Elementary School, said suspension does nothing to help students. The district should instead equip teachers, parents and students with assistance to address behavioral problems, she said.

“It is not easy to teach and at the same time counsel behavior,” Smith said. “Let’s talk solutions.”

Traci Dunlap, a pre-K teacher at Maplewood Elementary School, said she agrees with the intent of the ban but that it lacks a plan for addressing behavior issues after it is implemented. When a child is throwing, hitting, spitting and running away, it is impossible to teach a class of 22 students, she said. Dunlap asked the board to consider the needs and rights of other students in the classroom and the teacher.

“We cannot make this one more unfunded mandate,” she said.

Several speakers advocated for district-wide implementation of the Restorative Justice program currently in place at Akins High School.

Dionte McClendon, Restorative Justice coordinator at Akins, said the program works to resolve issues by increasing communication between students, parents and teachers using conversation circles. The process often uncovers deeper issues that students who are marginalized are dealing with, McClendon said. Since the program was implemented, suspensions at Akins are down 45 percent, he said.

McClendon asked the board to support the ban on suspensions for young students and implement more communicative practices.

Several student participants in Akins’ Ready, Set, Teach and Social Services Academy teacher training programs also spoke in favor of the ban. Both programs partner with local elementary schools to allow high school students to practice social and emotional learning, or SEL techniques, and mindfulness exercises on elementary-age students who cause disruptions.

Misty Lindsey, the Social Services Academy coordinator, told the board that coping skills are critical in teaching young people to function, but coping skills are ignored in public education. She said the academy’s implementation of yoga and mindfulness therapy at Menchaca Elementary teaches young students these coping skills.

“We are seeing amazing results,” Lindsey said. “Suspensions are way down.”

Rocío Villalobos, community outreach coordinator for Texas Appleseed, said the board should ban suspensions because data show minority students are disproportionately targeted.

According to data from the AISD Department of Research and Evaluation, black and Hispanic students were more likely to have disciplinary action taken against them than their white classmates.

Trasell Underwood, vice president of Education Austin, spoke as the parent of an elementary-age African-American son.

“Since January, I’ve received three suspensions calls,” she said.

Underwood said her son was never able to understand why he was going home. He thought, “Mom was being mean,” she said.

Underwood said parents want to be a resource for teachers. She urged the board to ban suspensions and provide additional support to classroom teachers dealing with children who cause disruptions.

“Because I want my child in the classroom,” she said.

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