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A move to shut off school-to-prison pipeline

ERIC JOHNSON | 6/20/2017, 10:39 a.m.
More than 63,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to Texas’ youngest students during the 2015-2016 school year. Of those suspensions, 26,000 ...
Rep. Eric Johnson of the Texas House of Representatives. Official photo

Texas House of Representatives

More than 63,000 out-of-school suspensions were issued to Texas’ youngest students during the 2015-2016 school year. Of those suspensions, 26,000 were issued to students in prekindergarten through second grade. African American boys were issued 47 percent of these suspensions, though they only make up 13 percent of the total elementary student population.

Countless studies have shown the benefits of early childhood education on closing the gap between at-risk children and their peers. However, when students are suspended, the learning process is disrupted, which effectively defeats the purpose.

Out-of-school suspensions for minor offenses serve as a gateway to much more serious offenses, placing students into the school-to-prison pipeline. When students are suspended, they are kicked out of classrooms and sent home, where they may not have hot meals to eat or a positive, nurturing environment at all. Parents are called away from work, and the child misses valuable lessons taught in the classroom, resulting in them falling further behind, often unable to catch up.

Children, especially African American boys who are the main recipients of out-of-school suspensions, are stigmatized and branded as criminals before they even reach the third grade. This leads to grade retention and significantly reduces the chances of these children graduating from high school. Black and Latino children are twice as likely not to graduate from high school when compared to their White counterparts.

Children who fail to graduate from high school are much more likely to become ensnared in the criminal justice system at some point. It is critical to shut off the pipeline where it begins: issuing out-of-school suspensions to young children for minor offenses. It is important that school policies handle discipline issues in a way that keeps children in school.

Texas just took a huge step in shutting off the school-to-prison pipeline. On Monday, Gov. Abbott signed a bill I authored into law, House Bill 674, a bill that bans out-of-school suspensions for students in prekindergarten through second grade, unless the student commits a serious offense such as carrying a weapon, harming another student in a way that constitutes criminal assault, or brings drugs, alcohol or other controlled substances to school.

The law encourages school districts to develop and implement alternative discipline methods to suspension that will keep children in school and focus on correcting the behaviors that result in their suspension under current disciplinary policies.

Several school districts in the state had already moved in this direction, including Dallas, Houston, Austin and El Paso. Dallas just made the policy change to ban out-of-school suspensions earlier this year.

Now, all of Texas has moved away from criminalizing young children, especially Black boys who are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to suspension policy. HB 674 goes a long way towards shutting off the school-to-prison pipeline and sends a message that the State of Texas wants children to be educated, not incarcerated.

State Rep. Eric Johnson represents District 100, which includes parts of Dallas and Mesquite, in the Texas House of Representatives.