A+ for teachers: The Reporter's Message by Laura Onyeneho
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Local organizers are pushing Houston ISD to reform the district’s code of conduct, which they claim unfairly punishes children for normal adolescent behavior.

Advocacy groups ONE Houston and Texas Civil Right Project have been at the forefront of this push. Travis Fife, a legal fellow and staff attorney with TCRP, said HISD’s 2021-2022 code of conduct relies too heavily on police intervention or exclusionary discipline.

“Right now, the code of conduct’s focus is primarily on the punitive side,” Fife said. “But if a kid commits a nonviolent act…it is a moment of learning and teaching, and punishment shuts down that moment for positive intervention and replaces it with something that really alienates the kid.”

HISD’s board plans to approve the district’s 2022-2023 code of conduct during a special meeting Thursday evening. Ar’Sheill Monsanto with ONE Houston said they plan to testify in favor of the group’s proposed reforms, which include:

  1. Stop using pepper spray and zip ties;
  2. Stop arresting children for nonviolent offenses;
  3. Stop questioning children without their parents present.

Monsanto said the current code of conduct is also leading to Black students being disproportionately punished due to overly hard punishment practices.

“The Black student population is disproportionately represented. And when you look at those specific offenses, a lot of it is for things that are deemed ‘disrespectful,’” she said “If a student may make a comment under his or her breath, or do something that the teacher may not like, they can be suspended for that.”

HISD data obtained by the Texas Civil Right Project shows that 36 students were arrested in 2020 — a year that was most held in a virtual space. According to the data, more than 50% of all student arrests in 2020 involved Black students, despite only about 23% of the student population being Black. Additionally, 138 use-of-force incidents occurred during the 2020-2021 school year — 83 were among Black students, according to the data.

HISD did not respond to a request for comment.

Additionally, Monsanto said the district’s board doesn’t apply much scrutiny when approving the code of conduct. Organizers hope to change this by advocating for the district’s code of conduct to be frequently reviewed by diverse stakeholders — including parents, students, teachers, and staff, Monsanto said.

“They’re not looking at the code of conduct and how discipline impacts learning or the root cause of students being suspended for discretionary things,” Monsanto said. “So we’re hoping that we get to really elevate the conversation, and that they’re taking our questions into consideration and actually going in there and doing the research.”