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The University of Houston College of Education hosted a community conversation aimed at identifying key action plans to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in favor of equity-centered educational opportunities and outcomes for students. 

The discussion introduced a lineup of experts in fields ranging from education to the law, including: HISD Superintendent Millard L. House II; Assistant County Attorney, Harris County Attorney’s Office, Glenda Duru; Director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, Dan Losen; and Public Health Education Chief in the Office of Children and Resiliency, Houston Health Department, Kristi Rangel.

Falling short nationwide

Losen explained the many factors that contribute to the risk of juvenile delinquency and incarceration. One factor that is often overlooked is the way in which schools may be contributing to such patterns, failing to meet the needs of students and how it contributes to the crisis. He said the current system across the nation is grossly inequitable.

Challenges include lack of training for educators to deal with mental and emotional behavior health due to COVID-19, ineffective teaching of reading, parental outreach, lack of diversity among staff, power imbalance on school boards and inequitable harsh discipline given to troubled students by decision-makers. Losen added that the presence of police on campus is more detrimental than beneficial. Suspensions also increase the rate of dropping out and failing to graduate on time.  

School district solutions 

House discussed steps his district is taking. The HISD Wraparound program provides families with food, counseling, rental assistance and other services for students who have stressful home lives. He said many schools that have a zero-tolerance policy can criminalize infractions that should be handled inside a classroom rather than a courtroom. HISD’s police department works directly with the Harris County Attorney’s Office to ensure that students with minor infractions enter a program that leads to rehabilitation as well as trauma-informed training with law enforcement.

HISD is working with the Center of Urban Transformation on a program that allows students arrested on minor drug charges to have their records expunged when they complete a drug education program. The school district encourages principals, teachers and students to build rapport rather than surface-level communication to understand the root of a child’s behavior and life experience. 

Intersection of court system & education

Duru said in Harris County, children and families are afforded court-appointed attorneys who are highly trained in juvenile matters and are given procedural protection and due process. She said judges should have more discretion when determining when there is a violation of probation in order to understand the root causes of the child’s behavior.

Students who are placed in detention centers are removed from their normal education settings and placed into a facility that doesn’t provide the same education quality as in school. The centers should provide the same opportunities a child would receive at their school, so when they do leave, they aren’t falling behind.  

City-wide solutions

Rangel listed several ways Houston-area schools can improve. 

  1. Improve access to direct services and review the student-to-counselor ratio. Many schools in Houston don’t follow the recommended one counselor to every 250 students. 
  2. Redefine the role of counselors. Clinicians should do more than just testing and scheduling. 
  3. Train educators on social-emotional learning and provide deep trauma training not just for a school support officer but for teachers as well. 
  4. Review the school discipline structure and student code of conduct in terms of the framework of equity and implicit bias training. 
  5. Involve the community and youth in the process of reform. 

Laura Onyeneho covers the city’s education system as it relates to Black children for the Defender Network as a Report For America Corps member. Email her at laura@defendernetwork.com