Michael Webb (R), shown here last year with then-Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt, is heading up a proposal for a kinder, gentler approach to first-time juvenile offenders in HISD.
Michael Webb (R), shown here last year with then-Interim Superintendent Ken Huewitt, is heading up a proposal for a kinder, gentler approach to first-time juvenile offenders in HISD.
Courtesy of HISD

HISD Proposes to Ditch Zero Tolerance for First Time Low Level Student Offenses

Moving away from a zero tolerance policy that automatically sent first-time offenders found with any amount of marijuana or alcohol to alternative school for 45 days, the Houston ISD board of trustees is poised to vote Thursday night to instead offer intervention.

“The impetus for the change is that one out of four students at Beechnut Academy [the private alternative school whose contract with HISD ends this month] are there for the first-time, under-the-influence offenses, mainly for alcohol and marijuana. Those are 45-day placements,” said Michael Webb, HISD director of social and emotional learning.

“What we’re trying to do is pivot the policy from placement to education,” Webb said.

Instead of automatic removal to an alternative school – HISD is establishing its own in-house alternative education school starting this fall – students would be offered “education, assessment, and, if indicated, community-based treatment alternatives for first-time drug or alcohol offences as an alternative to a required Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP) referral,” the proposed change reads.

“We would provide the schools resources to either provide awareness classes to students or if there is more of a need, if a substance use disorder had been identified, then we would refer the student to intervention through community providers through our wrap-around network,” Webb explained.

If a student successfully completes the classes, the potential removal to an alternative center would be waived altogether, he said. “If a student is reluctant to participate or not successful, then the student would be placed at a DAEP where we would be able to provide a very directed intervention targeting substance abuse.”
When asked why the proposed change, Webb said:

“When we look at substance use, is it a discipline issue or a health issue or is it both, and right now we’re treating it as a discipline issue. We’ve provided minimal supports to address the health side. So whether it was an impulsive decision and there’s not an addiction involved, the awareness class would be appropriate, but if the student is trying to conceal or hide an addiction or may be on that road, then we need to address this as a cry for help and connect the student to an intervention and not just place the student for 45 days at a DAEP.”

Awareness classes would be held before or after school and would not take away from instructional time, he said. Students could also take the course online in a two-week time frame, he said. Parental involvement would be requested but not required since the district doesn’t want to penalize kids whose parents are reluctant to participate.

Selected students would also be able to avoid or cut short their terms at the internal alternative school, Webb said, by engaging in a special program this summer. Students would also be expected to make “restitution” by completing certain activities and volunteering a certain number of hours or by providing proof they have a job.

“Right now there’s 157 students who are projected to begin the school year at our new internal DAEP. What we have not done in the past is offer students whose time is rolled over into the next school year opportunities to restore their time. We’ve identified about 100 students with lower-level offenses; these are not students with weapons or drug distribution. And we’re providing them with a series of activities to complete over the summer. If they are successful, then we would be able to waive the remainder of their time at the DAEP and they would start the school year at their own campus.”

This proposal was developed after meetings with and surveys of principals and teachers union representatives as well as on input from the district’s student congress, Webb said. There will be a centralized process to review all the cases, but each school will be able to develop its own program, as long as it implements something, Webb said.

The proposed policy would also realign the district’s drug offense levels to those of the state. In recent years HISD had elevated many Level III offenses to Level IV — at a higher level than even the state did, he said. And at Level IV a principal has no discretion and the offender is automatically removed to a DAEP.

Examples of the offenses that HISD is proposing to move back to a Level III include drug paraphernalia, bribery, extortion, possession of replica guns, possession of ammunition and assault by contact, Webb said.

“We’re not saying that these are not severe. We’re not saying that these aren’t safety risks to campuses. But what we are saying is we want to give principals the latitude to consider the circumstances,” Webb said.
Along with all this would be reinforcing a change in policy voted on last year: the end to one of the principals’ favorite tools – the ability to tell a student who’s been acting up to just go home for the day in an informal suspension. Now all suspensions will be formal, Webb said, and the district plans to provide additional teacher training on how to better deal with bad behavior.

“But sending the kid home, that doesn’t teach an alternate behavior. At the maximum, that kid is coming back in three days. Suspension doesn’t teach a kid a new behavior. It doesn’t teach a kid how to resolve a conflict. It doesn’t teach a student on how to show empathy or respect. Basically it’s just saying you do your time. In many cases, we’re not even asking the kid to apologize for what he’s done. We’re just saying, ‘Do your time and come back’ and then everything is good.”

The district is even proposing fine-tuning the language in the Student Code of Conduct. Right now, Level III carries with it the words: suspension or DAEP placement. The district is amending that to say: targeted intervention, restitution, suspension and/or optional DAEP placement. “It doesn’t take those measures off the table; it just highlights the importance of having a continuum of responses,” Webb said.

“I think it’s important that regardless of the level of offense that there are factors that must be taken into consideration such as the age of the student, whether the student has a disability, what the intent of the student was before a decision is made.

“We have moved away from a zero tolerance policy.”

*Update, June 9, 2017: The HISD school board approved these proposals at its June 8 meeting.

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