Emma Payton said she tried everything to keep her 12-year-old son from getting campus probation in the Killeen Independent School District. But on March 25, school officials sent sixth-grader D’Andre Thomas to Gateway Middle School.
“My first reaction was that it’s a place that he doesn’t need to be. I was not happy at all,” Payton said. “I didn’t have any control over that decision. ... They’re setting these children up for failure.”
D’Andre, who suffers from attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, was placed in Gateway after a series of accusations, including grabbing a student around the neck and choking him in the hallway, and causing constant disruptions in class, according to documents provided by his parents. While district officials and D’Andre’s parents came up with a plan to curb his behavioral issues, Payton said teachers and officials at Smith Middle School didn’t follow through.
Gateway is the Killeen district’s campus for the Disciplinary Alternative Education Program. Texas education law mandates districts create such programs for students who commit serious or repeated disciplinary infractions. Killeen’s DAEP programs are at Gateway High School, Gateway Middle School and Cavazos Elementary School. Those campuses have tighter security and more stringent rules for students, including metal detectors.
At Gateway, D’Andre, who didn’t have to go through a metal detector at Smith Middle School, said he feels like he’s “in prison.”
According to district policy, students with a record like D’Andre’s are initially assigned a set number of days in the program. They successfully complete days by following Gateway’s rules and code of conduct. D’Andre was originally assigned to 30 days in Gateway Middle School in late March. He was still there last week.
Marking the days
According to D’Andre and his family, completing the days successfully is easier said than done.
Teachers are given a daily point sheet, where points are deducted for infractions such as “slouching down in seat” or dragging “feet across the floor” during class or “cracking knuckles.”
On his first day at the alternative school, points were deducted from D’Andre for a dress code violation because his faded black socks were considered gray and his black belt had a small logo on it, according to a copy of his records.
If any points are deducted from a student’s sheet, Payton said the day does not count toward the total number of “successful” days they must accomplish at the alternative school. As of Friday, despite 30 days at Gateway, D’Andre only completed 18 of the 30 “successful” days he needs to return to his old school.
“The rules put a lot of pressure (on me) because they’re being strict,” said D’Andre, adding he feels hopeless. “It makes me feel horrible because it makes me seem like they just want me to stay (at Gateway).”
Structured by design
The Killeen Independent School District does not comment on individual students, but did issue a statement on the DAEP program.
“The District Alternative Education Program, by design, is more structured than the regular education program. One of the main reasons for this structure is to help instill discipline within students, a skill which will hopefully assist the child throughout the remainder of their lives,” the statement said. “That being said, the over-arching goal of the DAEP program remains student success. The district is committed to ensuring students are prepared to return to their campuses with an acquired skill-set that will allow them to achieve high levels of expectations back at their home campuses. This is accomplished with both positive reward and negative consequences.”
However, Payton’s husband, James Payton, said the system might be too rigid for students.
“The whole system, to me, seems like a pre-prison camp. The way they have the kids walking around with their hands behind their back,” he said. “If every child gets written up for every little thing that they do that’s not in the criteria of the student handbook, everybody is going to be in alternative school. A kid is going to be a kid.”
Trouble with discipline
D’Andre’s parents aren’t the only ones concerned about DAEP. Throughout Texas, the management, use and impact of the programs is a divisive issue.
“There’s an over-arching concern in the way Texas school districts handle discipline in general,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director for Appleseed Texas, a nonprofit social economic justice advocacy group based in Austin. “We have returned to a more reactionary and punitive disciplinary policies.”
Appleseed has long been critical of DAEP systems in the state. Fowler pointed to a 2011 study from the Council of State Government’s Justice Center on school discipline in Texas. The report found that a high number of expulsions are made from DAEPs for the very same behaviors that brought the student there initially, and that students facing DAEP placement are more likely to get poor grades, drop out or end up in the juvenile justice system.
The report also stated that close to 97 percent of the children that participated in the study were placed in DAEP programs at the discretion of schools, not for more serious infractions that posed a danger to the health and safety of students and staff, for which placement is mandatory.
“The system doesn’t help kids with behavior issues get back on track,” Fowler said. “So the question becomes, is this an effective tool?”
Emma Payton worries about the influence more serious offenders will have on D’Andre.
“You’ve got kids that were selling drugs or have weapons with kids that are ADHD,” she said.
Fowler said the state needed to reassess how it handles student discipline, and move away from simply punishing students to measures that address and work with students to correct misbehavior, such as restorative justice programs.
“We need to ensure that the systems we put in place works for kids, as well as teachers and school personnel,” she said.
Fowler said Appleseed is hopeful the state’s newest education commissioner, Michael Williams, may look at making reforms to how schools handle discipline in Texas. In the meantime, districts will continue to be required to run and fund the programs.