A school police officer shines a light into a dark room as he searches for a possible threat during a training exercise in Corpus Christi, Texas in 2014. (Michael Zamora/AP)

An analysis of discipline in elementary schools across Texas shows that black students, especially boys, are suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates and are labeled as troublemakers as early as pre-kindergarten.

The study by Texas Appleseed focuses on the second-most populous state, but it mirrors school discipline patterns nationwide. It also comes as concern grows about suspensions, which researchers have linked to greater risks of academic failure, dropping out of high school and involvement in the juvenile justice system.

“You have hundreds of thousands of removals per year of very, very, young students, and think about the kids who are actually impacted by that,” said Morgan Craven, director of nonprofit Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project. “Particularly when you think some students are feeling these punishments at unequal rates and certain students are targeted by this system, there is a really compelling reason to change what we’re doing.”

The Obama administration issued new guidelines to school districts last year, urging education officials to adjust policies to reduce suspensions and to keep more students in class.

Researchers at Texas Appleseed analyzed elementary school disciplinary data from the state’s 1,227 districts for the 2013-2014 school year. The schools collectively educate 2.6 million children in pre-K to fifth grade.

Although black students make up about 13 percent of the elementary school population in Texas, they accounted for 42 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. Black students were more than twice as likely to be suspended as white students.

Boys are 51 percent of the total student population in the state but accounted for 84 percent of all out-of-school suspensions from pre-K to fifth grade. Boys were more than three times as likely to be suspended as girls.

Special education students, who make up 9 percent of the student population, accounted for 18 percent of the elementary school suspensions in the 2013-2014 school year.

In Texas, school districts have three levels of suspension:

●In-school: When a student is removed from his regular classroom but remains at school

●Out of school: When a student is forbidden from returning to school for up to three days

●Disciplinary Alternative Education Program: Usually a separate campus where students go if they have been suspended for more than three days.

All three punishments are damaging to students, Craven said, especially to young children who might internalize messages that they are “bad” or somehow damaged.

“These students can be labeled by teachers, peers and even in their own heads that they see themselves as ‘bad’ children who deserve to be punished rather than helped,” she said.

“If a 4-year-old is disruptive, acting like a 4-year-old, it makes no sense to punish them. And if there’s anything more serious going on that deserves more attention, suspension won’t help with that.”

A better approach would be to reserve suspensions for the most extreme cases, such as when a student brings a weapon to school or poses a physical threat to others, Craven said. For other cases, schools should keep students in the classroom but use different disciplinary approaches that reinforce positive behavior and de-escalate confrontations, she said.

In September, the case of Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old son of African immigrants who was arrested and suspended for three days after bringing a homemade clock to school in Irving, Tex., highlighted what many said were overly harsh disciplinary policies exacerbated by racial profiling.

Ahmed’s story went viral, winning him an invitation to the White House. Shortly after the visit, his family decided to leave Texas and move to Qatar.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said that during the past three years, state officials have asked school districts with high numbers of suspensions to devise plans to reduce those punishments.

“Commissioner of Education Michael Williams has stressed to school districts the importance of keeping students in the classroom,” Ratcliffe said. “A student that’s taken out of the classroom for disciplinary reasons is also taken away from an opportunity to learn.”

The state is offering school districts training in “restorative justice,” an alternative to “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, Ratcliffe said.

The Houston Board of Education is expected to vote later this week on a proposal to end suspensions and expulsions for students in second grade and younger, except as required by law.

School districts in Seattle, Miami and Los Angeles are moving toward similar policies, and some aim to end suspensions and expulsions in all elementary grades.

Earlier this year, the D.C. Council passed a law that prohibits suspending or expelling pre-K students except in cases involving weapons or drugs or when a student threatens or causes “serious bodily injury.”