Houston School Board Refuses To Ban Suspensions

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Despite the fact that school boards across the country have banned school suspensions, Texas has yet to join the growing trend. Five Houston ISD school board members voted to keep school suspensions as a last resort for teachers who are “deal(ing) with kids who they can’t contain” in pre-kindergarten through second grade classrooms. The rejected plan also included provisions for a team of specialists and $2 million in classroom management training for HISD teachers.

In lieu of the ban, HISD decided to retain school suspensions of second grade and under students as a “last resort.” Of 2,673 reported disciplinary incidents during the 2014-2015 school year, 87 percent involved youth considered to be economically disadvantaged or at risk, and 84 percent were male. 70 percent of the youth disciplined with suspension were African-American even though black youths comprise only 25 percent of the HISD student body.

The school board’s initial proposal was laudable. It proposed the suspension ban as a positive approach to deescalating conflict in classrooms. It called for more accountability and more disciplinary data in an effort to develop school-specific annual plans to reduce misbehavior and rectify inequities. Encouragingly, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier called for a more empathetic approach to discipline, saying, “We understand better now than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. We must take a hard look at how we are handling these issues to ensure we’re not contributing to an already stressful situation for these students.” Furthermore, schools with lower suspension rates have been found to have higher achievement rates and narrowed achievement gaps, while schools with higher suspension rates see the opposite effect.

The school board’s decision was not without dissent. Other board members and teachers voiced opposition to suspension. HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones called suspension an “ineffective” deterrent. Voicing concern for students at-risk for the school-to-prison pipeline, she said, “They go home. There’s nothing at home for them. They come back and it’s even worse. I cannot vote for continuing to perpetuate the pipeline to prison, not just for African-American children, but for any child.”

A similar article appeared earlier this week on Houston Public Media.

LGBTQ Homeless Youth at Risk, Part 1 of 3

image1Homeless youth, sometimes referred to as “unaccompanied” youth, are individuals under the age of 18 who lack parental, foster, or institutional care. Youth become homeless for a variety of reasons, but rarely by choice. Factors contributing to youth homelessness include family dysfunction, sexual abuse, “aging out” of the foster care system, exiting the juvenile justice system, and economic hardship. According to data from The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, close to 1.7 million youth are homeless because they either ran away from home or were kicked out of their home.

The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence cites the primary cause of youth homelessness as family dysfunction in the form of parental neglect, physical or sexual abuse, family substance abuse and family violence. Furthermore, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reports that twenty-five percent of former foster youth became homeless within four years of exiting care.

Data from the Williams Institute indicates that between twenty and forty percent of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBTQ. Forty-three percent of clients served by drop-in centers identified as LGBTQ. Thirty percent of street outreach clients identified as LGBTQ. Thirty percent of clients utilizing housing programs identified as LGBTQ. In short, LGBTQ youth make up a large percentage of the overall homeless youth population.

The roots of LGBTQ youth homelessness are similar to their non-LGBTQ peers. The Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, et al., report that the most common factor contributing to LGBTQ homelessness is family rejection based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Similarly, the second most common factor is being forced out by parents or caretakers after coming out. At school LGBTQ students often face harassment–both physical and verbal–which leads to high dropout rates and a greater risk of chronic homelessness. Gay and transgender students are two-times less likely to finish high school or pursue a college education compared to the national average; seventy-five percent of LGBTQ homeless youth drop out before completing high school.

Generally, homeless youth are at greater risk of psychological and physical trauma. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services statistics show that 61.8% of homeless youth report depression, 71.7% report experiencing major trauma such as physical or sexual abuse, and 79.5% experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder for more than a month. Homeless youth are already a vulnerable population, but for the twenty to forty percent of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning), the situation is even more dire.

Once homeless, LGBTQ youth report a greater risk of victimization as a result of physical and emotional violence, abuse, and exploitation compared with their heterosexual peers. Unaware of the biological complexity of sex and gender, many people discriminate against transgender people on the basis of ethnic, religious and cultural values. Transgender youth face the most extreme threats to their safety due to a lack of acceptance. Additionally:

  • Eighty-six percent of LGBTQ students reported being verbally harassed at school due to their sexual orientation
  • Forty-four percent of LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed at school because of their sexual orientation
  • Twenty-two percent of LGBTQ  students reported having been physically attacked in school
  • Sixty percent of the students who were physically attacked in school said they did not report the incidents because they thought no one would care
  • Thirty-one percent of LGBTQ students who did report incidents of harassment and violence at school to staff claim they received no response

All too often, the service organizations that serve homeless youth fall woefully short of supporting LGBTQ homeless youth. Exacerbated by family dysfunction and high drop out rates, LGBTQ youth are disproportionately homeless due to overt discrimination when seeking alternative housing. Reports of widespread discrimination in federally funded institutions are often cited as a major contributing factor to the recent epidemic of homelessness among LGBTQ youth. Overt discrimination is not unheard of: in some instances signs are posted barring transgender homeless youth from accessing services, or they are kicked out of shelters when their transgender identity is discovered.

There are currently no federal programs specifically designed to meet the needs of gay and transgender homeless youth, and there are no protections in place to keep gay and transgender youth from being discriminated against while accessing federally funded homeless services. The Obama administration is aware of and making an effort to respond to the growing rates of LGBTQ youth homelessness, but there is a chasm between program recommendations and program implementation.

[This article is part 1 in a series of 3 articles on LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 1 identifies origins and challenges for LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 2 identifies federal, state, and local initiatives aimed at LGBTQ homeless youth. Part 3 summarizes best practices and offers a state & local approach based on best practices.]

Federal Government Investigates Dallas Truancy Courts

Photo by Christina Ulsh

 

Photo by Christina Ulsh: http://keranews.org/post/kids-eye-view-dallas-county-truancy-courts-under-federal-investigation

Photo by Christina Ulsh

Late last March, the Department of Justice announced a federal investigation of the Dallas County Texas Truancy courts.  Based on preliminary investigations, the Justice Department estimated that in 2014, Dallas County prosecuted over 20,000 children for missing class.  Punishing students for truancy may be understandable, but in Dallas students can be arrested in front of their classmates, sent to court, and charged outrageous fines.  The Justice Department is investigating the processes used by the Dallas court.  Reports indicate students with valid excuses for missing class are still being charged and fined by the court, with no chance to explain. KERA News in Dallas reported on one student at a school in East Dallas, who after a schedule change was counted truant from one class when she was sitting down the hall in a different class.  She was arrested in front of her mother and fined $200, all with no attorney and no real chance to explain to the judge.

The Justice Department is concerned that those children being prosecuted are part of a school-to-prison pipeline. Former Attorney General Eric Holder explained in the press release:

“This investigation continues the Justice Department’s focus on identifying and eliminating entryways to the school-to-prison pipeline, and illustrates the potential of federal civil rights law to protect the rights of vulnerable children facing life-altering circumstances.  As the investigation moves forward, the Department of Justice will work to ensure that actions of Dallas County’s courts are appropriate; that our constitutional protections are respected; and that the children of Dallas County can receive the meaningful access to justice that all Americans deserve.”

The investigation was triggered by complaints filed by Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights Texas and the National Center for Youth Law.  One of the disputed practices in Dallas County is the practice of arresting students at school in front of their classmates. As Deborah Fowler, the deputy director of Texas Appleseed (one of the three advocacy groups that filed the complaint with DOJ) poignantly said,  “It’s really hard for me to see how arresting a child at school promotes engagement in education.”