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Advocates: Houston-Area Students In Alternative Schools Need ‘Fresh Start’ After COVID

Advocates argue that the students — separated for things like dress code violations, lashing out at teachers or getting into fights — shouldn’t face additional consequences “for something that is so out of their control.”

New Code of Student conduct
Research shows that harsh school discipline impacts students of color, children with disabilities and students from low-income homes more than their peers.

Juvenile justice advocates are asking school districts in greater Houston to give students in alternative schools a fresh start, so that the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t prolong their punishments into the next academic year.

That’s because before schools closed their doors, hundreds of Houston-area students were learning in alternative programs for things like dress code violations, lashing out at teachers or getting into fights.

Now that the pandemic has sent all students and teachers to learn at home for the rest of the year, this time of distance learning should count towards their discipline, they argued in a recent letter to area districts.

That way, those students can return to their home campus in August. Christina Beeler, a staff attorney with the Juvenile and Children’s Advocacy Project of Texas, said a fresh start is critical for them to reconnect. 

“They’re able to be with their friends who they haven’t seen since March, they’re able to be with teachers they love in a community they love, and they’re able to feel a sense of community,” Beeler said.

While some educators may say students need to learn consequences, Beeler said that connection is lost during a pandemic.

“Kids don’t feel like it’s fair if they’re in trouble months and months later for something that happened a long time ago,” she said. “It makes it feel like you’ve labeled them as if they’re bad or they can’t be helped, so they’re just going to be stuck at this school that’s for kids who’ve been labeled as bad.”

The Texas Education Agency has left it up to local districts to use their discretion in how they mete out discipline for the rest of the school year. Beeler said that already punishments for conduct code violations are very subjective in Texas schools, and alternative programs disproportionately affect students of color, children with disabilities and students from low-income homes.

So far, out of 19 school districts, four have agreed to the coalition’s request to count distance learning toward alternative time. That includes the Alief, Clear Creek and Lamar Consolidated districts. The Cy-Fair Independent School District also asked high school principals to waive or reduce punishments on a case-by-case basis and has waived all punishments for elementary students in alternative programs.

The coalition, which includes Disability Rights Texas and Texas Appleseed, is also urging districts to count distance learning, whether a student logs onto a computer or turns in assignments or not, since many children in low-income homes don’t have access to technology.

Otherwise, students may not get their disciplinary days counted simply because they don’t have a laptop at home or someone to help guide them if they have trouble with their assignments, said Beeler, a former teacher.

“This isn’t their fault,” Beeler said. “COVID-19 is no one’s fault and these kids should not face consequences for something that is so out of their control.”

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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