New discipline method works to remove racial bias in Houston-area schools

Briana Conner Image
Friday, October 8, 2021
Restorative discipline works to remove racial bias in Houston schools
Instead of just sending students home for behavioral reasons, these school leaders say getting to the root of the problem is more ideal.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- In August, Action 13 exposed severe discrepancies in discipline for students in the Greater Houston area.

Black and Hispanic kids are more likely to miss school because of suspensions than their white peers, data shows. There is a different approach to discipline that changes the system by taking race out of the equation. It's called restorative discipline.

The idea is to use relationships to deal with the root issue behind bad behavior at school instead of sending students home.

SEE ALSO: Black and Hispanic students more likely to be suspended than white students, data shows

One piece of data shows about a quarter of the students in HISD are Black, but they're about seven times more likely to end up suspended compared to white students.

One teacher who uses this method allows students to write down anything they want her to know each day. If a student starts acting up, she can go to those notes to find out what may be bothering them before determining discipline.

Administrators and researchers said not using suspensions for behavior that doesn't require it automatically cuts down on bias toward students of color.

Mrs. Calhoun's fifth grade classroom at Askew Elementary School on Houston's west side has several themes like inspiration and availability, but she said the most important one is honesty.

"I tell them the truth," she said. "I expect them to tell me the truth. This is a safe haven for them."

A fifth grader named Malachi was asked what it's like knowing he can tell his teacher how he feels. He said, "Knowing that, it helps me feel more confident learning. Sometimes when I'm stressed, I know I can relax. I know my teacher will help me."

Another student named Ellen said, "I feel like I can tell her almost anything that I struggle with, and it's very helpful to have that."

Confidential notes from her students help Calhoun understand what her students are dealing with. They can be a big help when it comes to discipline.

Principal Ebony Cumby said they began using the restorative method three years ago.

"It's a shift in mindset to realize that now, the social and emotional wellbeing of kids is right up there with reading and writing and math, and all of those things," Cumby said.

The Department of Education and Houston Independent School District both track school discipline data. Action 13 took a look at Askew's record during the 2017-2018 school year, which was before staff started using restorative discipline. Every student punished with suspension at the majority minority school that year was Black or Hispanic.

Two instances involved knives, resulting in automatic suspensions. The other five were listed as code of conduct violations, like dress code violations or class disruptions.

Instances where school staff can use their own discretion to determine punishment can allow racial bias to creep in. When Askew put the restorative method in place the following school year, suspensions fell to zero.

"Really, in practice, it just boils down to building relationships with kids. Getting to know kids," Cumby said. "Getting to really understand what makes them tick, what drives them, what upsets them, and what sparks joy in them. Then, using that personal knowledge we have about them to help them make better choices and decisions when they're faced with challenging situations at school."

The director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University has been studying restorative discipline and said data indicates it's a better solution than sending students home.

"The research was clear. Restorative justice programs work. They cut down on the number of kids suspended, and it cuts down on school-to-prison pipeline likelihood. We understood there's a better way to do this than send a kid home for three days," said Howard Henderson.

Henderson said momentum behind the method is growing, but it's important to note that it doesn't work in every situation. The center's research showed teachers and administrators have discretion to choose punishment for 60 to 70 percent of violations. The rest are issues that result in automatic suspension.

"We're not talking about fights. We're talking about issues kids get into every day. It just so happens that we are going to make sure these kids stay in school," Henderson said. "It's a round-table conversation with the people who need to be there, the vested stakeholders. Ultimately, when you have to face the people you've offended, you respond differently. That's what this looks like."

At Askew, administrators said taking suspensions off the table also produced academic benefits. "One of the things we've seen is just that because kids are spending more time in school and in class, we are slowly starting to see achievement gaps close. We're getting a clear picture of what the academic deficits are of our African-American boys and Hispanic boys. Things we couldn't see as clearly before, because they weren't in class consistently. They weren't producing work," Henderson said.

The changes were three years in the making at Askew, but quickly produced more equitable results for all students.

"It's challenging work," Cumby said. "But it is the most rewarding thing I've ever done hands down."

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