Almost 60 percent of Texas public school students received punishments ranging from expulsion to in-school suspensions of a single period at least once between seventh and 12th grades, according to a new study released Tuesday.
The report, from the national nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center, also found that Texas schools with similar student populations are disciplining students at different rates. And students who were disciplined were more likely to do poorly academically and be involved in the juvenile justice system.
"Policymakers should be asking if the school discipline system is getting the outcomes they want it to get," said Michael Thompson, director of the center, which did the study with Texas A&M University's Public Policy Research Institute.
The study followed about 1 million public school students who began seventh grade in 2000, 2001 or 2002. Of those studied, nearly 15 percent had contact with the juvenile justice system, ranging from an arrest to a police officer counseling a youth and submitting paperwork to the juvenile probation department.
"What we've got to do is be smarter," said Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston. "Tough means turning somebody's life around and finding out why they're misbehaving."
The center said the report doesn't prove a direct causal relationship between suspension or expulsion and repetition of a grade, dropping out or getting involved in the criminal justice system. But by controlling for variables, "it's fair to say that school discipline is highly related to these outcomes and strongly predicts these results," the study found.
Texas was chosen for the one-of-a-kind study because of bipartisan support from state policymakers and the state's availability of juvenile justice data, Thompson said. He also noted that nearly one in 10 public school children in the U.S. is educated in Texas, and its diversity -- 49 percent Hispanic, 33 percent white and 14 percent black -- represents what is becoming more and more common in the U.S.
Among the findings were that about 15 percent of students were suspended or expelled 11 times or more -- and nearly half of those with 11 or more disciplinary actions were involved in the juvenile justice system. Only 40 percent of students disciplined 11 times or more graduated from high school on time, and 31 percent of students disciplined one or more times repeated their grade at least once.
Those who were involved in the school disciplinary system averaged eight suspensions or expulsions. The study also found that black students, especially males, were more likely to be involved in the school disciplinary system.
Disciplinary actions noted in the study were in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, being placed in a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program or being expelled to a Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program or to the street if such a program wasn't available.
Almost 70 percent of the disciplinary incidents resulted in in-school suspensions, also known as ISS; 22 percent were for out-of-school suspensions up to three days; 6 percent led to an expulsion to a DAEP placement; and expulsion to JJAEP and the street was about 2 percent.
Thompson said the data didn't allow researchers to know whether an in-school suspension was for one class period or several days. He said in-school suspension is a formal action and wouldn't include actions such as after school detention.
Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, pointed out the study found that 90 percent of students who were suspended or expelled violated a school's code of conduct, which could be an infraction as minor as dying their hair green or cursing.
"It's not a major crime. It's an infraction and it may cause a student to go to ISS for a day," she said.
Less than 3 percent were for behavior that state law mandates expulsion or removal, such as bringing a gun to school.
Russ Skiba, a psychology professor at Indiana University who studies school discipline and was a consultant on the study, said the study shows that schools may need to explore more effective options for punishment, including how to teach students to avoid problems in the first place.
But Lonnie Hollingsworth Jr., director of governmental relations for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association who was not involved in study, said "it's not surprising that misbehavior at school relates to a higher rate of juvenile justice."
He also suggested that a major purpose of discipline is to "remove disruptive students from the classroom so that those students who aren't misbehaving can receive the education they're entitled to."
"If you have an extremely disruptive student, it is not a good use of time for a teacher to address that student," he said, adding that teachers are also having to do more with less funding these days.
Thompson said he suspects other states would likely have similar numbers. Last year, the percentage of kindergarten through 12th-grade students in Texas getting out-of-school suspensions or expulsions was at about 6 percent, compared to California at about 13 percent and Florida at about 9 percent.
Also, according to the study, the national number of suspensions has increased from 3.7 percent, or about 1.7 million, in 1974 to 6.8 percent, or more than 3.3 million, in 2006.