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The Good, the Good-ish & the Bad Out of Texas’ 86th Session Related to School Discipline & Safety

When it comes to legislative action during the 86th session on bills related to school discipline and school safety, there’s good news, good-ish news, and bad news.  Let’s start with the good news.

The Good News:
Legislative Focus on Research-Based Practices and Mental & Behavioral Health Supports

The Good news is that — with one glaring exception that we’ll discuss later — the Texas Legislature was very much attuned to a focus on research-based practices.  The omnibus bill that passed and was signed by Governor Abbott — Senate Bill 11 — includes language requiring school districts to create threat assessment teams, an evidence-based alternative to automatic referral to law enforcement for students who threaten harm. The Texas School Safety Center is tasked with developing evidence-based model policies and procedures for school districts to use in developing their teams. 

Texas Appleseed began to raise this model when we saw a dramatic spike in school-based arrests and referrals to juvenile probation for two offenses — “terroristic threat” and “exhibition of firearm” (for which you can be charged even if you do not actually have a firearm).  As we documented in our report, Collateral Consequences, many of those referrals were not for serious threats of violence, but instead involved age-appropriate behavior (a child pretending to shoot monsters in a school hallway, for example) or were responses to bullying or involved students with disabilities (including a blind child who had been bullied who responded to one of his bullies with a threat he had no ability to carry out).  Threat assessment teams, when they utilize an evidence-based protocol, have been proven not only to keep schools safer, but also to reduce disciplinary referrals and disparities in discipline for students of color.

There will be a great deal of work to do to ensure that the threat assessment policies and teams that are put into place are consistent with the research about what works.  A change in policy is only as good as its implementation — and Texas Appleseed will be working with the School Safety Center and others to ensure that this policy lives up to its potential for Texas students and educators.

In addition to the threat assessment requirements, SB 11 also included language that requires all school police officers to be trained in child-specific issues and de-escalation techniques (in the past, only officers in larger districts were required to be trained).  Appleseed hopes that better training for school police will reduce the harmful effect of having officers in schools, including overcriminalization, and unnecessary and dangerous use of force.  Texas Appleseed also supported passage of Senate Bill 1707, which specifies that school-based officers are not to be involved in routine student discipline, another important step in ensuring age-appropriate behavior it not criminalized.

Finally, in addition to including language in SB 11 related to better access to mental health services, the legislature also followed the good recommendations made by Texans Care for Children, NAMI Texas, and others to pass House Bill 18 and House Bill 19, two bills that focus on better access for students to school-based mental health services, as well as training in trauma-informed practices. We were excited to follow the lead of these partners and to work in coalition on these issues.

The Good-ish News: 
Funding for implementing these requirements

So now for the “good-ish” news. When it comes to school safety, there were two primary funding mechanisms totaling approximately $200 million for school districts to tap into if they need additional funds to ensure their campuses are safe places.   Why is this only “good-ish” news you may ask?

It is good-ish because the legislature did not reserve the funding for purposes consistent with research-based practices.  One source of funding — in the amount of $100 million — was included in Senate Bill 500, the supplemental appropriations bill that taps into the “rainy day” fund.  Unfortunately, the language in the bill earmarks the money only for hardening - including metal detectors. These measures have not been shown to improve the safety of schools — and can have the opposite effect by having a negative impact on school climate.  Though we understand that the “rainy day” funds are traditionally limited to “one time” uses, we can envision any number of ways school districts could have used these funds consistent with research about what works without running afoul of the traditional limitations on rainy day funds.

SB 11 included a second source of funding for districts, a per-student (ADA) “school safety allotment” of $9.72, another $100 million, which was funded through a contingency rider in House Bill 1 (the budget).  While the list of allowable uses for the allotment funding includes some uses that are consistent with research, like prevention and treatment programs aimed at adverse childhood experiences, providing mental health personnel and support, and providing behavioral health services, it also includes hardening and school police.  And — as we have said here before — focusing “school safety” efforts on hardening and law enforcement are not consistent with research, may harm school climate, and lead to overcriminalization of normal childhood behavior, particularly for students of color and those with disabilities.

We will be working hard over the next few months to make sure that school districts are aware that the allotment funding can be used for purposes consistent with research that supports school safety and positive student outcomes, and share our research with them showing the dangers of hardening and school policing.

The Bad News:
A regressive zero tolerance bill

Sadly, the news from session isn’t all good or good-ish.  We were deeply disappointed by the passage of Senate Bill 2432, which expanded the list of zero tolerance offenses that will land a student in a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP).  Once SB 2432 goes into effect on September 1, harassment of a public school employee — as defined by certain Penal Code provisions referred to in the bill — will become a mandatory reason for referral to a DAEP.  The Penal Code provisions include some broad language that we fear will result in significant increases in the number of students sent to DAEPs statewide.  

While proponents of the bill argued that there is no longer any such thing as zero tolerance discipline in Texas because of the language in the Education Code requiring districts to consider a list of factors prior to referral, including a student’s intent, disciplinary history, or disability (and  soon to include foster care status and homelessness), we know that in many schools, when a student is referred to a DAEP for a mandatory offense, these mitigating factors still aren’t being considered.  Proponents of SB 2432 also mistakenly claimed that students receive a “hearing” prior to mandatory referrals to a DAEP — but the Education Code simply requires a “conference” with the parent prior to referral.  Attorneys, along with parents, tell us that these conferences are rarely meaningful opportunities for an alternative to referral to be considered, and that zero tolerance discipline remains a problem in Texas schools.

Of course, where a student truly engages in harassment of a school employee, we do not think the behavior should be ignored.  But we have heard from too many students and parents over the years who were ensnared by zero tolerance language and disciplined for age-appropriate behavior.  We also know from a wide (and growing) body of research that zero tolerance discipline doesn’t work to change problem behavior.  Instead, it is harmful to student outcomes and discriminatorily applied, pushing students of color and kids with disabilities out of school at alarming rates.  

We have also written many times over the years about the problems associated with DAEPs, which have dropout rates more than twice that of the regular school setting.  The quality of instruction often lags behind that of mainstream campuses, causing students to find they are well behind their peers when they return to their regular campus.  Parents in some districts report that their children have no transportation to the DAEP — which can be quite a distance from the child’s home, creating barriers to attendance.  DAEPs tend to be woefully under-resourced; one parent described the DAEP her son attended this way in an e-mail to Appleseed:

Here is what I am most upset about. His DAEP class is in a shed out beside their AG shop. My son is sitting in a 4x4 foot space with separators between he and the other four kids in there. There is tin foil on the windows so they cannot see out. They are not allowed to speak or engage with anyone besides a teacher that may come in, for the eight hours he is there. He is never able to step out of this shed all day. There is not even 15 minutes assigned for them to sit outside or walk around. To me he would have more freedom if he was in a juvenile detention center. 

Appleseed will be working with our partners to encourage school districts to narrowly interpret SB 2432, and will educate stakeholders around the need to ensure that the mitigating factors listed in the Education Code are meaningfully considered before any disciplinary referral, including the DAEP referrals now required by this new language.  We will track the impact of the bill on students and families over the interim and provide assistance where we can.

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