How California is Uniting To Stop The Swinging Door of School Suspensions

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Civil rights advocates, judges and law enforcement sometimes wind up on different sides of the public debate about juvenile justice. But on the issue of school discipline, we’re speaking the same language.

That’s because harsh school discipline rules are paving the way for too many students to wind up kicked out of school and on their way to jail.  After witnessing 20 years of a so-called zero tolerance approach to discipline in our public schools, we have piles of evidence that it doesn’t work, either in class or in the community. These rules don’t help students learn to control their behavior or be accountable to themselves or others. Instead they lead to an unsupervised, frankly sometimes welcomed, vacation for youth who are already struggling in school and they teach all the wrong lessons.

Our files are filled with students who received an automatic suspension for failing to be prepared for class or getting smart with an administrator, when they were really struggling with a tragedy at home, learning disability or untreated mental illness and calling out for help.

Instead of helping students to change their behavior, harsh discipline rules have narrowed the options for principals, teachers and students. UCLA researchers have found that some California school districts suspend more than 25% of their students.  The report shows large disparities for students of color and students with disabilities, but it also finds high numbers of suspensions regardless of a student’s race. Something isn’t working.

The truth is that student suspensions aren’t really about school violence. Nationally, a major percentage of school suspensions and expulsions have been for minor offenses like “insubordination.” From 2009-2010, school disciplinary exclusions for disruption or willful defiance accounted for roughly 42% of the total statewide, whereas only a small fraction were for use or possession of a firearm or explosive.

What’s the effect of harsh school discipline on students themselves? Students who are suspended often put on a tough shell. They become harder for teachers to reach, and the result is they drift away from school.

A recent study of Texas students found that, for students with similar profiles, those with one or more suspensions or expulsions were 5 times more likely to drop out—and 6 times more likely to repeat a grade level—than students with no disciplinary actions. The same study found that students with just one suspension were 3 times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system within a year.

Students who start out as a name on an attendance chart wind up as another number in our nation’s graduation crisis.

So how do we stop the swinging door of school suspensions and juvenile justice encounters?

We propose an evidence-based and educationally sound approach to keeping students in school and on track for their futures. As Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in her State of the Judiciary speech on March 19, “If we aren’t responsible for our youth, if we don’t return them to school, if we don’t keep them in school, if we don’t help them become productive citizens, we are paving the way for entry not only into the juvenile justice system, but the adult justice system.”

This year California legislators have proposed several bills that have support from law enforcement, judges, educators, parents, students and community leaders. They address some of the worst failures of harsh discipline rules: challenging schools that suspend more than 25% of their students to take an evidence-based approach that lowers the number of children removed from school, and also improves school safety, academic achievement and attendance overall.  This approach also makes teachers happier because school is more structured, less chaotic, and more students can learn.  The bills also amend the rules that lead to students being suspended out of school over failure to turn in homework or disrupting class, but leaving in place full teacher discretion to remove a student from class if they can’t make it work.

They make sure social workers and court-appointed attorneys know when youth in their care face expulsions from school, so they can help bring in services and supports and work with the school to address the problematic behaviors that too often stem from the violence and abuse they have faced at the hands of adults.

Nobody can change student behavior all by themselves — not students, not parents, not schools and teachers, not judges, and certainly not police. We’re talking about going from a Lone Ranger approach to a Spider-Man approach where we’re building a web that connects school and home, classrooms and communities.  We have to make that web so tight between parents, police, teachers, and communities that nobody can fall through.

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Laura Faer is education rights director at Public Counsel.

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