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.

ABA Resolution Seeks to Prevent Foster Kids Becoming Homeless

The ABA House of Delegates met last Monday, February 10, 2014, at the Midyear Meeting in Chicago, Illinois to debate and vote on a wide range of public policy issues.

One Resolution on the table, which was submitted by the Commission on Youth at Risk, “urges governments to enact and implement legislation and policies which prohibit youth from transitioning from foster care to a status of homelessness, or where a former foster youth will lack a permanent connection to a supportive adult.” This Resolution, Resolution 109A, was adopted.

The Resolution says governments and courts should provide support for housing assistance for children who turn 18 while in foster care and that dependency cases should not be dismissed until a Court finds that the child has (1) housing, (2) a permanent connection with at least one supportive adult, and for youths with disabilities, (3) a transition to adult systems that provide health care and other support.

The Resolution cited a report that followed over 700 children who had been in the foster care system in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin. 36% of the former foster care children reported at least one instance of homelessness by the age of 26. The Resolution explained that “further action is needed to help former foster youth find safe and secure housing and avoid homelessness,” suggesting that Courts “simply forbid a child leaving foster care from becoming immediately homeless.”

In support of the second requirement (that the Court find the child has a permanent connection with at least one supportive adult), the Resolution explains that, “youth need stable and caring relationships with committed adults in order to transition smoothly into adulthood and avoid negative outcomes like poverty and unemployment.” In 2009, 80% of eighteen-year-olds who aged out of foster care through emancipation had no permanent family to turn to.

As it relates to the disabled youth in foster care, the Resolution argues that states “pay special attention to the transition needs of youth with disabilities because youth with disabilities are over-represented in the child welfare system and are at greater risk for poorer outcomes than their non-disabled system-involved peers.” Special transition planning requirements must be put in place because the successful transition of youth with disabilities requires accessing benefits, services, and supports in adult systems that operate by rules and eligibility criteria very different than the child serving systems.  Many of these services and supports have long waiting lists, are not entitlements, and require careful and early planning to ensure that the youth can access them upon discharge.  In addition, because many of these youth cannot rely on a parent or caregiver to help them navigate this complicated transition, clear requirements and procedures for transition planning for these youth is essential to their health and well-being.

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Child Abuse Impacts Brain Development

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has published an extensive new report on child abuse and neglect. Below is a summarized version of some of the report’s findings…

Elevated Risk Environments

The study highlights factors that create an “elevated risk” for child abuse and neglect to occur. Factors with the strongest support in scientific research and literature include: substance abuse, family history of child abuse and/or neglect, and depression. The study recognizes that other factors may also be associated with child abuse and neglect.

Effects of Child Abuse and Neglect

Abuse and neglect actually affects the way a child’s brain develops, therefore, creating lifelong consequences.

“Childhood abuse and neglect have a profound and often lasting impact that can encompass psychological and physical health, neurobiological development, relational skills, and risk behaviors.”

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Photo courtesy of the Child Advocacy Center of Galveston County

Scientific studies show that abuse and neglect affects the development of the “amygdala, a structure in the brain that is critically involved in emotion.” In addition, “a number of studies suggest that abuse and neglect are associated with functional changes in the prefrontal cortex and associated brain regions, often affecting inhibitory control.”

Children who suffer abuse and/or neglect are more likely to exhibit: deficits in executive functioning and behavioral regulation, academic problems, emotional processing deficits, attachment disorders, an inability to regulate their emotions when interacting with others, problematic peer relations, dissociation, post traumatic stress disorder, stunted growth, obesity, and heightened anxiety. This results in a high percentage of victims as they age to be institutionalized, struggle with various addictions, attempt suicide, and engage in sexual activity at earlier ages.

Hope through Early Intervention and Treatment

Early interventions and treatment can effectively work to reverse the negative effects. In a recent Washington Post Article, Mary Dozier, NAS report committee member and University of Delaware chairman of child development, stated that,

“the effects seen on abused children’s brain and behavioral development are not static. If we can intervene and change a child’s environment, we actually see plasticity in the brain. So, we see negative changes when a child is abused, but we also see positive brain changes when the abuse ends and they are more supported. Interventions can be very effective.”