MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
A new report shows the majority of high school and middle school students in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once during a six year period. The report marks the most comprehensive analysis of school suspension and expulsion policies ever conducted. And it concludes that when misused, such policies often put students at greater risk of dropping out or ending up behind bars. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: "Breaking Schools' Rules,"�the title of the study, is extraordinary in that it looked at individual school records and tracked all the seventh graders in Texas - a million of them - for six years. One finding surprised even veteran educators.
Mr. MIKE THOMPSON (Council of State Governments Justice Center): Sixty percent of all the students who were studied were suspended or expelled at least once between their seventh- and twelfth-grade years.
SANCHEZ: Mike Thompson is with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which commissioned the study. He says the frequency with which kids in Texas are suspended and expelled reflects a 20-year trend that has seen the rate double nationally.
Mr. THOMPSON: For example, in California in 2010 alone, nearly 13 percent of K-through-12 students were placed in out-of-school suspension or expelled. In Florida, that number was about 9 percent.
SANCHEZ: Texas, though, is the only state that's been able to use this data to track kids and see what happens to them after they're suspended or expelled.
Of the million students in Texas who were tracked, 15 percent were disciplined repeatedly - 11 times or more. Half of these kids ended up in juvenile-justice facilities or programs, for an average of 73 school days. These students were likely to repeat a grade and not graduate from high school.
Mr. THOMPSON: African-American students, and those with particular educational disabilities, experience a disproportionately high rate of removal from the classroom for disciplinary reasons.
SANCHEZ: One glaring example: 70 percent of black girls were suspended or expelled compared to 37 percent of white girls, usually for the same offenses. Which gets to another key finding: In almost every case, the decision to remove a student was made solely by a teacher or school administrator, which may explain why minority kids are punished disproportionately, says Dr. Doug Otto, school superintendent in Plano, Texas. He says of course racial prejudice is involved.
Dr. DOUG OTTO (School Superintendent): And it is a problem, but it's pretty hard to be a renegade teacher, so to speak, and just willy-nilly expel students because you're prejudiced.
SANCHEZ: For all its shortcomings, Texas is trying to promote fair and flexible disciplinary policies while being tough on the most serious violations. Since 2005, very few cases in Texas - 3 percent - involved drug or weapons possession, which under state law mandates suspension or expulsion.
Waco, Texas, is typical. This year, serious violations were rare. The year before, though, the district issued almost 900 so-called tickets to students for persistent misbehavior, and for violating the student code of conduct.
Mr. JOHN HUDSON: In other words, it could be some for never doing the work, some for talking back, some for tardiness.
SANCHEZ: John Hudson oversees disciplinary policies for the district. There are always going to be disobedient, disruptive kids in school, says Hudson. It's the response to this behavior that's inadequate.
Mr. HUDSON: You know, I know it's a cliche, but when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
SANCHEZ: Mike Thompson says that's the problem. Expulsion and suspension policies focus too much on punishment, not enough on addressing the misbehavior and having students learn from their mistakes.
Mr. THOMPSON: We think that the findings in this report should prompt policymakers in Texas - and states - everywhere to ask this question: Is our state school discipline system getting the desired result?
SANCHEZ: The answer to that, says Thompson, is no.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.