Back to School: What’s new in Texas schools this year

If asked about what’s different this school year, the kids in your household will probably talk about new teachers, classrooms and school supplies. But parents should know some other changes are on the way since this school year comes after a Texas legislative session when a whole lot of laws got made, and most go into effect on September 1.

Folks I work with at Texans Care for Children reported out on what happened at the Capitol this spring that might affect campus life this school year.

“There will be more of a positive focus on students’ mental health,” says Josette Saxton, who facilitates the Texas Children’s Mental Health Forum:

Kids heading back to school may not notice but some changes are coming.

Texas has taken steps to make sure educators get basic information on red flags that can occur when a student is struggling with a mental health concern. Educators will also find out about what steps they can take to help students. Teachers will soon receive information on recognizing and educating students with potential mental health concerns as part of their educator certificate requirements, and school districts will be required to provide teachers with basic training on identifying mental health and suicide risks among students. Grants will be made to communities to offer mental health first aid trainings to interested community members; teachers will be able to take these trainings at no cost.

Mental health prevention will now be included in school districts’ coordinated school health efforts [a health-promotion approach that all Texas schools are supposed to already have in place]. The legislature has called on state agencies to make an easily accessible list of effective programs schools can use to promote positive youth development and prevent mental health and substance abuse issues, along with suicide prevention and mental health intervention programs and strategies.

“Fitness at school could get a boost, and in some schools, so will breakfast,” says Lauren Dimitry, a health and fitness policy expert, who also helps lead the Partnership for a Healthy Texas:

Thanks to some positive policies enacted by lawmakers, school will be a healthier place for many Texas kids this year. Schools where 80% or more of students already qualify for free or reduced price lunches, will now offer a nutritious breakfast, for free, to all students. Also, the program is a great deal for Texas as it is funded entirely with federal dollars. In a state where 1 in 4 children live in a food insecure household [meaning they are at risk of missing a good meal], this program will help hungry kids get the breakfast they need to stay properly nourished and better focused in the classroom.
AdvertisementStudents may soon see more opportunities to be physically active on campus. A bill that passed directed local parent and community-led School Health Advisory Councils to develop recommendations for how to increase physical activity on their campuses. The new law also asks these same School Health Advisory Councils to consider utilizing willing community partners to increase physical activity during the school day. The law allows local communities to decide what might work best for their students and tailor recommendations to increase fitness to meet district-specific goals.

Although the Governor vetoed a bill that would have reduced the availability of junk food like sugary drinks during school hours in middle and junior high schools, the good news is that newly released USDA rules will achieve the same end in the 2014-2015 school year. Ultimately, this good health policy prevails; it just has to wait a year in Texas.

“We should see smarter school discipline this school year. But punishments for acting out on the school bus may be more serious now,” says Lauren Rose, whose focus is juvenile justice and school discipline.

If your kid misbehaves and a school police officer or school resource officer gets involved, how the behavior is handled should be very different. Prior to this year, there was a troubling trend of kids getting ticketed at school, even for clearly not criminal infractions (think: chewing gum or mouthing off). Instead of teachers and administrators handling discipline, cops on campus would, and it could be costly to kids and their families. Before this year, students could receive a Class C Misdemeanor ticket that would send them straight to the courtroom for “Disruption of Class,” “Disruption of Transportation,” or violations considered “Disorderly Conduct.” Students can no longer receive the school-specific offenses of “Disruption of Class” or “Disruption of Transportation.” And kids can no longer be issued a citation for fine-only offenses when they are at school or on the school bus. (They can still receive a Class C Misdemeanor in the form of a complaint for an offense like disorderly conduct; that complaint must be filed with the court, though, with evidence like witness statements and victim statements, if there is a victim. The increased accountability and paperwork will probably reduce any citations for minor misbehavior, which is as it should be.)

Before this school year, some school districts in Texas had policies that kept school bus drivers from sending students to the principal for misbehavior on the school bus.  But, starting this school year, the legislature requires that principals handle misbehavior on the school bus the same way it is handled in the classroom. This means some schools may see an increase in the number of students removed from the classroom (i.e., suspended or expelled, which already happens too often in Texas) for misbehavior that happened not in class but on the bus.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info] Christine Sinatra works for Texans Care for Children, a nonprofit dedicated to improving policies that affect kids in Texas that also has a weekly column in the Austin American-Statesman. She is a mom to a first-grader, a former newspaper reporter and a former high school teacher.[/author_info] [/author]



About Christine Sinatra 53 Articles
Christine Sinatra is the communications director for Texans Care for Children and mom to a kindergartener. Her past experience includes working as a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and the Oakland Tribune company, being a Peace Corps volunteer for high school girls in Africa, and studying at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

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