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Here’s How San Antonio ISD Plans To Shift Away From ‘Punitive’ Discipline

Schools that use restorative practices often have quiet areas students can go to regroup in stressful situations, like this cozy area at Pre-K 4 SA South.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
Schools that use restorative practices often have quiet areas students can go to regroup in stressful situations, like this cozy area at Pre-K 4 SA South.

The San Antonio Independent School District board adopted an unusual student code of conduct Monday. In addition to the typical list of rules and consequences, it included a student bill of rights created by students.

The new code also commited the district to a discipline policy called restorative practices, which are designed to reduce traditional punishments like suspensions. Restorative practices work to repair the harm created by students’ actions and address the root causes of their negative behavior.

For instance, students could be referred to a social worker or sent to a youth council for peer mediation.

Read SAISD's Student Code of Conduct

During public testimony, Sergio Plaza with the near-peer mentorship nonprofit City Year San Antonio thanked the district for creating the documents.

“I cannot say how important it is that SAISD includes within the first few pages of its code of conduct strategies and frameworks that are geared towards establishing and cultivating positive relationships with students,” said Plaza, who works at Tafolla Middle School. “We are prioritizing educating students to learn how to identify and manage their emotions, rather than punishing them for having those very emotions.”

Plaza also asked the board to make sure teachers and administrators are given the training and support they need to put the policy into action.

“It needs to be recognized that this should be a start rather than a conclusion to the district improving its policies and practices,” Plaza said, who is also part of a group of educators and community organizers called SA RISE, which asked the district to update its discipline policies.

Before the vote, SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez acknowledged that implementing restorative practices at every campus across the district was going to require a culture shift.

“Our district has had a really punitive culture,” Martinez said. “It is shift for us to change this, and it is going to require a lot of training.”

Student Bill of Rights

The student bill of rights, which includes the right to student voice, the right to be “accepted regardless of background,” and the right to “consistent and equitable discipline,” is listed at the very beginning of the code of conduct. District staff said it provides the framework for the rest of the document.

The student bill of rights adopted by the SAISD board Nov. 18, 2019.
Credit San Antonio ISD
The student bill of rights adopted by the SAISD board Nov. 18, 2019.

“Without an underlying philosophy about how we approach students when they have a misstep, and without clearly articulated (teacher training) at each level, then I think it leads to everyone choosing their own strategy and methodology,” Chief Academic Officer Patti Salzmann said. “What the student code of conduct does is it anchors those actions and responses around those socially just developmental strategies that help kids learn through their misbehavior.”

Student focus groups at 14 different schools helped create a draft of the bill of rights, and students and teachers at all schools were able to provide feedback on the draft in May. A working group of teachers, administrators and district leadership created the final bill of rights and code of conduct.

History of Disproportionate Suspensions

Part of the goal of restoratives practices is to prevent a disproportionate number of suspensions for students of color and students with disabilities.

The new code of conduct includes research on the consequences of implicit bias and national statistics on the disproportionate number of suspensions given to boys, students with disabilities and students of color.

Trustee Steve Lecholop asked the superintendent for a report on how SAISD compares to the national statistics.

“What is our disproportionate rate? How are our suspensions disproportionately affecting our young black boys on the East Side? Because I know that it is,” Lecholop said. “Let us know where we are so we can know where we’re going.”

Martinez said he is in talks with his staff to bring that data to the board, but he wants to wait until they can also provide context and “the beginning stages of some proposed solutions.”

“This is a movie that has a very similar ending in every single district. It’s bad. It’s just bad. It’s always disproportionate,” Martinez said. “We have to admit that k-12 has been a very punishing type of environment for most of our kids, especially kids of poverty, kids of color, especially our boys of color.”

One of the district’s proposed solutions is a CARE team that will respond when a student is in extreme crisis and may need to be removed from the school.

Beth Jones, a senior executive director in SAISD’s office of student discipline, said the CARE team would include a board-certified behavior analyst, a licensed specialist in school psychology, two social workers and plainclothes police officers.

According to data reported to the state, SAISD sent more than 900 students to alternative discipline programs during the 2018-2019 school year. About 3,700 students received out-of-school suspensions.

Black SAISD students were suspended at more than twice the rate proportional to their population, with black students making up nearly 14% of suspended students but just under 7% of all SAISD students. Students with disabilities were also suspended at disproportionate rates. Less than 13% of SAISD students were in special education, but nearly 21% of suspended students were in special education.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@TPR.org and on Twitter at @cmpcamille.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.