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Students To Study School-to-Prison Pipeline in new College of Education Course

Augustina Reyes
Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Professor Augustina Reyes thinks out-of-school suspensions should be banned for students in elementary school.

Posted Jan. 31, 2017 – With school discipline policies under scrutiny nationwide, the University of Houston College of Education has launched a new course this semester for students to explore issues related to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Professor Augustina “Tina” Reyes, who has studied school discipline for nearly two decades, said she created the graduate-level seminar to help educators better understand the impact of suspending and expelling students and to develop different strategies to change children’s behavior.

“We need to give teachers the tools,” said Reyes, a former first-grade teacher and bilingual director in Houston public schools.

Throughout the semester, students will venture into the city, visiting courtrooms and community centers that serve youth to compile case studies and conduct field-based research.

Students also will analyze data on school discipline, focusing on different racial and ethnic groups; study Texas law and school district policies; and discuss the growing practice of restorative justice, which emphasizes dialogue over suspensions.

Reyes said she is inspired to help educators understand their students, many of whom survive troubled home lives. She recalled a story of a local teacher who sent a student to the principal’s office after the student fell asleep in class and then threatened to harm the teacher. The student opened up to the principal, sharing that his mother’s boyfriend had terrified his mom and him with a knife and gun the night before, Reyes said.

“Still, this kid gets up and comes to class,” Reyes said. “Schools are havens for kids, and they should be.”

Across the state, 11.5 percent of public school students were suspended, expelled or sent to alternative school in the 2014-15 academic year, according to the most recent discipline data from the Texas Education Agency.

Reyes cited research from Harvard University sociology professor Bruce Western, who found that students who were suspended were more likely to be arrested than those who weren’t – thus, setting up the school-to-prison pipeline.

A Houston school board member during the 1980s, Reyes said she thinks out-of-school suspensions should be banned for students in elementary school. (The Houston school district applied a ban in 2016 to students in second grade and younger.) However, Reyes said, she supports in-school suspensions or making students come to school on Saturday.

“It’s when you start putting them out of school that you break the educational cycle,” Reyes said. “You break the relationship between the teachers and the students.”

According to a recent Stanford University study, Reyes said, students may be more motivated to follow the rules down the line if educators maintain respect while dishing out discipline.  

Jonathan Schwartz, associate dean of graduate studies, said Reyes’ new course fits well with the college’s focus on community engagement and equity.

“Dr. Reyes is providing real-world experiences in Houston to see the impact of discipline policies on the children we serve,” Schwartz said.

Professor Anthony Rolle, chair of the college’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, said the course covers a topic with ramifications beyond the classroom.

“Addressing school-to-prison pipeline issues for P-20 students is an issue of academic and economic importance,” Rolle said. “This affects not only those students and families who live in low-wealth communities or communities of color, but also those of certain means who must invest time and energy supporting the success of these individuals or pay the price – literally – to support their incarceration and post-incarceration needs.”

–By Ericka Mellon