Using UT researcher’s initiatives, in-school suspensions decrease at Texas middle school

Adam Hamze

In-school suspension rates at a Texas middle school dropped 75 percent over two years as a result of an initiative that disciplines students through community accountability created by a UT researcher. 

Philip Carney, principal of Ed White Middle School in San Antonio, contacted UT researcher Marilyn Armour because he said his school had one of the highest rates of suspensions in the district. According to Armour, who is a professor in the School of Social Work, the current zero-tolerance policy that many schools incorporate in their discipline is detrimental to the growth of the students.

“The initiative is an effort to move away from exclusionary policies that fundamentally punish students by expecting them to know what to do [after consequences],” Armour said. “This leaves students feeling discouraged and demoralized from being a part of the school effort and results in great retention issues and dropouts.” 

Rather than harshly disciplining students who are acting up, the initiative is aimed at fixing behavior problems through community discussions. Carney said a key factor of the initiative is holding students accountable for their mistakes by communicating with those involved, which he said he believes will avoid isolating them from their peers. 

“We hold preventive, proactive group-building activities to talk about issues to the community, which doesn’t mean someone is doing something wrong per se, but has to do with checking in and being a community,” Carney said. “Another way we strive to resolve issues is chat with all the students who might be in conflict.” 

A six-year study, “Breaking Schools’ Rules,” produced by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, found that out of nearly 1 million Texas students between 7th and 12th grade, almost 60 percent of them have been suspended. The restorative discipline techniques have taken effect across the country, but Ed White Middle School is one of the first schools in Texas to implement the techniques, according to Armour. 

Krystal Howell, radio-television-film freshman, said when she was in middle school, she saw a pattern with the same kids being constantly suspended. She said she believes it was a result of zero-tolerance discipline not motivating the students to change their habits.

“I feel like with the right amount of community involvement, it might have a better impact because with zero tolerance, if these kids think that the system doesn’t really care about them, they’ll continue to misbehave,” Howell said. 

Carney said he believes the initiative’s success at his school will be the beginning of a paradigm shift in the way discipline is approached in the public school system, which could include sanctions from state and federal offices if schools do not comply with the removal of old policies.

“What I see from people I’ve connected with is that we very well may be going towards another change in education,” Carney said. “It’s sort of like when the paddle went away — I think there’s going to be a big increase in this practice within the next five years.”