Tackling suspensions: PAISD superintendent, principal stress parental involvement in discipline

Published 12:20 am Saturday, January 25, 2020

To Memorial Ninth Grade Academy Principal Dr. Angel Murphy, a student’s home life plays a critical role in his or her conduct and performance in school.

“Whatever is going on at home, they bring it here, whatever it is,” Murphy said. “If it’s physical abuse, sexual abuse, drug abuse, whatever goes on at home is going to determine what goes on here. And you feel that from the parents when you encounter that or don’t encounter that.”

Murphy, along with Port Arthur Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Mark Porterie, tout the importance of parents’ roles in their children’s school lives, as the district works to combat a high ratio of out-of-school discipline actions.

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“We’re seeing things students are doing today that we didn’t experience 20, 30 years ago,” Porterie said without giving specific examples. “We’re experiencing incidences of student behavior and choices kids are making that we didn’t see 20 or 30 years ago.”

Porterie and Murphy addressed steps they’re taking to help the district lower a high rate of out-of-school suspensions. The district annually reports data related to discipline, academic performance, student demographics and financial information, among other categories, to the Texas Education Agency through its Public Education Information Management System.

TEA data for the 2018-19 school year reveal that 2,890 out-of-school suspensions were handed out of the district’s 8,906 students. The out-of-school suspension rate came out to 32.45 per 100 students.

“I would agree that is a high number,” Porterie said. “We’re always looking for avenues to decrease suspensions.”

The state ratio for out-of-school suspensions was 7.84 per 100, while only 4.13 percent of the state’s 5,574,620 students in TEA-regulated schools were suspended out of school.

Vanessa Sanchez, the district’s PEIMS clerk, stressed the out-of-school suspension count is not one for every student. In the PAISD, 1,133 students faced such measure last school year.

“If a student is suspended four times, then we’re reporting four out-of-school suspensions,” she said. “It’s per incident.”

Port Arthur ISD Superintendent Dr. Mark Porterie addresses attendees at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Brunch and Celebration on Monday at the Bob Bowers Civic Center. (I.C. Murrell/The News) 1-20-20

Changing times

Porterie, who in 2018 was named Region 5 Superintendent of the Year and finalist for state Superintendent of the Year, stated that parents have to support schools in order for their children to learn.

“In the day a long time ago, 25 or 30 years ago, parents supported the schools,” he said. “They wanted their children to learn. When the parent came to the school, it wasn’t, ‘What did you do to my child?’ They would ask the student, ‘What are you doing to be in this office?’, not the other way around.

“If students are respectful of their parents, they’re not going to act out in school. If parents make sure their kids are coming to school to learn and not act out, then we would not have the issues we’re dealing with. It’s a partnership. When they come to school and understand the expectations of home, then we can do wonders with that student.”

Murphy said communication and building a relationship between school staff and parents take first priority in helping with student discipline. She added that connection separates the Ninth Grade Academy from other schools where she has worked as assistant principal.

“If you have home support, there are less suspensions,” she said. “When you have a lack of parental support, you see the suspensions are higher because you can’t control the kids and they can’t control them at home. It’s a direct correlation between the two.”

Murphy hands each parent who attends the school’s freshman orientation a guide of campus rules and expectations before classes begin. In one of the packet’s 11 pages, penalties for first through fifth offenses of minor infractions (disturbing or eating in class and insubordination, for examples) are outlined, ranging from student warning to discipline referral to her office and the parents being contacted.

“Our first step is never to just suspend the student,” Murphy said. “The first step when we have discipline problems is to see our Communities in Schools. If a kid does something in class and it’s not a major infraction — if it’s sleeping in class, if it’s chewing gum, if it’s something that they’re doing, we send them to Communities in Schools to see what’s going on at home. If it’s something like they’re not getting sleep, they don’t have any food, whatever it is, we try to find that out before we do anything. If it’s clothes, we find them clothes. We find them food. We have a food shelter here where we actually go and send them food for the weekend. What we try to do first is find out what’s going on.”

Long process

It’s only after the sixth offense that a student faces either after-school tutoring or Saturday school, Murphy said. The seventh offense would result in in-school suspension.

“By the time you are suspended out of school, we have done everything we can as a campus, and some kids, it doesn’t matter what you do, are just headed in that direction,” she said.

A suspension at the Ninth Grade Academy usually deals with safety issues and is an automatic discipline action, Murphy continued. The first offense for a major infraction (for examples, fighting, drug or alcohol use or vaping) calls for an automatic referral to her office, as listed among the punishments in the orientation packet.

“If you are violent or if it’s gang-related violence, fighting, physical, threats, terroristic threats, you are going to be suspended,” she said. “So, I know for a fact, what we’re looking at, just for this campus, you may be looking at 5 percent [of students suspended out of school]. The other 95 percent of the kids never receive referrals. It’s the same 5 percent of the kids.”

Porterie announced the PAISD recently received a Community Partners Grant of $600,000 from TEA used to implement what he calls “restorative practices” instead of punitive actions to help with student conduct.

“Let’s figure out a way to get students to make right decisions for themselves before they even act,” he said. “The first thing they have to do is respect themselves, respect one another and respect employees, just respect the community. A lot of decisions you’ve made in the past, you’re not going to make again.

“We don’t want to be part of the entire raising of a child. We want to be partners.”

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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