Bills seek to curb suspensions

The school discipline pendulum is on the move again, swinging from the uncompromising zero tolerance policies enacted in the aftermath of horrific massacres toward efforts to give school officials more discretion.

The state Senate and Assembly education committees yesterday approved half a dozen bills with variations on the common theme of cutting back on expulsions and out-of-school suspensions by implementing programs aimed at reducing disruptive and dangerous behavior.

The shifting legislative momentum follows a series of reports in recent weeks shedding light on the vast number of suspensions, racial disparities in how they’re applied, and their negative impact on students.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg discussing his bill to reduce suspensions. (Source:  Senate website) Click to enlarge.
Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg discussing his bill to reduce suspensions. (Source: Senate website) Click to enlarge.

During the 2009-10 academic year, there were more than 750,000 suspensions in California schools, according to recently released figures from the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, which we first reported on here. That’s nearly as many as the entire population of San Francisco.

“It does seem like in past generations if a child was suspended from school it was a big deal. You took notice,” said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg at a news conference earlier this week. “And now it is the default for too many schools to suspend a kid just because it’s the easier thing to do than to work with him.”

Suspensions by race and ethnicity. (Source:  The Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.
Suspensions by race and ethnicity. (Source: The Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

The most severe punishment is disproportionately meted out by race and ethnicity. Suspended Education in California, an analysis of the federal data released a few days ago by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, found that one out of every five African American students was suspended at least once in 2009-10, compared to one in 14 Latino students and one in 17 white students.

Steinberg’s bill, SB 1235, would require schools with suspensions rates above 25 percent overall or for a specific racial or ethnic group to implement a research-based alternative that holds the student accountable for their misbehavior but keeps them in school. (Click here for a list of all the bills).

“We know what happens,” said Steinberg, “A kid who doesn’t have to be suspended, who is suspended, stays home, falls further behind in school, is unsupervised, has a much greater chance of dropping out, and becomes a statistic.

A sweeping study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center looked at the records of every seventh grade student in Texas in 2000, 2001 and 2002, and found that 31 percent of students who were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grades were held back at least once, compared with 10 percent of all other students, and they were five times as likely to drop out of school.

Relationship between any disciplinary contact and repeating a grade or dropping out. (Source: Council of State Governments). Click to enlarge.
Relationship between any disciplinary contact and repeating a grade or dropping out. (Source: Council of State Governments). Click to enlarge.

Counterpoising those studies is research evaluating a decade of in-school interventions that show the success of programs like Restorative Justice and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) in changing student behavior, teacher contentment and school climate.

After implementing a PBIS program at Pioneer High School in Woodland, principal Kerry Callahan told the Senate Education Committee there was a cultural shift at the school.  She recounted dealing with an out-of-control student who wouldn’t stop cursing at her.  Under the Education Code, Callahan could have suspended the girl; instead, she took her to the front office, calmed her down, and learned that the student’s mother had just abandoned the family.  Rather than sending her home to an emotionally raw environment, Callahan talked to the girl’s father about getting her into counseling, and got her some academic support.

Pioneer High also cut the number of suspension days in half from over 600 to about 300, boosted its Academic Performance Index by 37 points, reduced staff turnover by 50 percent, and improved attendance bringing in nearly $100,000 this year in additional ADA funds.

“We’ve been pushing to have this at every school,” said Laura Faer, the education rights director at Public Counsel Law Center, who has been working on this issue for nearly a decade.  “There is absolutely no excuse for not using alternatives that work for all children.”

Not everyone sees it that way.  Throughout Wednesday’s hearings, two legislative advocates for the Association of California School Administrators played tag team presenting testimony against each of the bills.   Laura Preston said ACSA isn’t opposed to everything in the bills, but is concerned that they may be going too far in the opposite direction.

Under current state law, school principals are required to immediately suspend students, and recommend expulsion, for five actions:

  • Possessing, selling or furnishing a firearm
  • Brandishing a knife at another person
  • Unlawfully selling a controlled substance
  • Committing or attempting to commit a sexual act
  • Possessing an explosive

For other behaviors, notably “willful disobedience,” principals have more discretion. Preston understands the frustration of parents and students when administrators don’t use common sense in those situations and suspend or expel students for talking back to teachers or bringing a butter knife in their lunchbox.

At the same time, the school violence that led to these zero tolerance policies hasn’t disappeared, said Preston, and removing some of that behavior from the mandatory expulsion category could be dangerous.

“Parents expect their children’s schools to be safe,” said Preston.  “There’s an expectation of every parent that when they send their kids to school they’re going to be in a safe environment and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they are.”

Preston is pushing for a conference committee with legislators and all the stakeholders, such as Public Counsel and other organizations actively working on this issue to try to refine and consolidate some of the bills. She said these conference committees were more routine before term limits, and provided everyone with an opportunity for thoughtful conversations.  Hopefully, that process will help them find a balance.

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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