There’s little consistency in the way California schools deal with expelling and suspending students, according to a new survey of 315 of the state’s largest school districts. Most districts agree on one thing, however: They need more counselors, support staff, and professional development to provide alternatives to kicking kids out of school.
During a time of increasing concern by advocacy groups and the Legislature regarding overuse of suspensions, especially for low-income and minority students, EdSource*, the nonprofit education research, analysis, and policy organization, set out to determine how districts are interpreting and implementing state policies. The responses, analyzed in the report, Understanding School Discipline in California: Perceptions and Practice, represent disciplinary measures in districts that enroll more than 4.1 million students, or two-thirds of the state’s K-12 population.
The survey found that an overwhelming 81 percent of administrators ranked student discipline and behavior management as a concern when compared to other issues facing districts, although just 22 percent said it was a major concern. They worry about the disproportionate number of expulsions and suspensions of Latino and African American students, about not having discretion when it comes to the state’s zero tolerance policies, and about the financial burden of student discipline on the schools in staff time, legal fees, and security measures.
“They are keenly aware of the challenges they face and are actively searching for solutions and support,” said Louis Freedberg, executive director of EdSource.
During this past legislative session, lawmakers approved a handful of bills aimed at requiring schools to pursue alternatives to expulsions and suspensions when they don’t involve behavior that poses a threat to students, teachers, and staff. Those bills are awaiting action by Gov. Jerry Brown. But Freedberg said district discipline officials aren’t “clamoring for a lot of changes in state law.” What many do want is a clearer definition of some catchall categories.
Most confusion surrounds the category referred to as “willful defiance/disruption of school activities.” Last year, 42 percent of all suspensions in California fell under this area, which can include anything from being disrespectful to being a troublemaker during class, which may account for why nearly half the administrators suggested that “it’s open to interpretation and misuse.”
Laura Faer has heard that concern for a while. As statewide Education Rights Director for Public Counsel Law Center, Faer has been a key force in pursuing the legislative changes in school discipline. But some elements of the report surprised and troubled her, in particular the fact that 65 percent of administrators reported that the average length of suspensions ran three or more days. Faer thought it was closer to one or two days.
“In terms of the number of days of lost instruction and the number of days children are on unsupervised vacation, it just reflects a larger problem than we thought,” Faer said.
She was also baffled at how many districts that complained about not having enough money to hire additional counselors or to implement programs aimed at changing student behavior didn’t seem to make the connection between keeping kids out of school and losing state funding from average daily attendance, not to mention the passel of secondary ills. Other research has found that schools with the highest suspension rates have high rates of administrative turnover, are among the most under-resourced, have lower achievement scores, and generally tend to be unwelcoming places.
Implementing evidence-based alternatives can spur change, said Faer, but they also require effort. “Sometimes when a child is misbehaving it’s much easier to kick them out because it’s a simple solution, but it’s not the one that’s going to result in positive outcomes, or in a school climate that’s conducive for all children to do well.”
Not all alternatives created equal
EdSource found that nearly half the districts surveyed reported implementing some strategies to keep students who misbehave in school and to try to prevent the problem behavior in the first place. These include the Restorative Justice Program, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS), and student-based conflict resolution strategies.
The Contra Costa County Office of Education is in the process of implementing a program called Choose Civility, which has been shepherded by the Stanislaus County Office of Education. It’s a voluntary program for schools in Contra Costa County that seeks to promote civil and respectful behavior by focusing on a different character trait each month – such as respect other people’s time, and speak kindly – and having teachers, schools, and even local businesses adopt activities and programs to promote that value.
The program doesn’t come with a predesigned curriculum or prescribed professional development, but it does have one important element – it’s free. “In this day and age of budget cuts where every program we have on earth is being slashed and burned, a program that is common sense and has some very easy principles of being kind to one another and speaking well of one another is a good program to put into place,” explained Peggy Marshburn, chief communications officer for the Contra Costa County Office of Education.
Marshburn said the county office has assembled a leadership group of about 40 managers, supervisors, and principals who are developing ideas for activities that will be posted on their website for teachers to use.
Even though it’s free, Choose Civility isn’t a good choice, according to Nancy Markowitz, a professor of education at San Jose State University, where she founded the Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child. Programs without significant professional development are generally “worthless,” and a lot of meaningless words, said Markowitz, who teaches classroom management to teacher candidates.
In the most successful programs, teachers must learn how to develop relationships with their students so they can quickly recognize when a child is troubled and help them through it. In addition, she said, the more teachers know about a student’s background and home life, the less likely they are to stereotype the child.
“They learn things about the student they never knew that gives them a totally different perspective on the child,” explained Markowitz. “It changes the child’s relationship with the teacher, because they start seeing the teacher as a person who cares about them, and they start acting out less in the class as a result.”
Markowitz said she’s seen amazing transformations in students when teachers get to know them and try to understand why they’re acting out in class. “After doing this case study, I will be more careful as a future teacher to not make assumptions about my students,” wrote one of her teacher education candidates. “I know now that behind every difficult behavior there is a complex web of reasons for it.”
The San Jose State program isn’t typical, said Laura Preston, a legislative advocate at the Association of California School Administrators. Teacher education courses on student discipline usually focus on policies in the state education code, not on alternative programs.
Preston says the training needs to be expanded even beyond teachers to include local school boards and administrators, and this sort of training takes time. “If you talk to the districts that have implemented programs like ”restorative justice” or “nurtured heart,” it takes resources. Not only financial to learn about the program, but time to train. It often takes years to get buy-in from staff. It is not a simple solution,” said Preston.
That’s one reason why ACSA opposed some of the bills to ease up on suspensions and expulsions. They would have swept in reforms overnight without giving districts enough time to implement alternatives, and without acknowledging that what goes on in a classroom isn’t always cut and dried. Principals have told Preston that they have students who “every single day of the week will do whatever they can to be disruptive.”
She said ACSA’s members do want to work with the proponents of change, but they want to do it slowly, rather than another sharp swing of the pendulum. “The [EdSource] report reminds me of how we got to this place,” recalled Preston. Back in the 1990s, during a time of violent gang activity on school campuses, the chair of the Assembly Education Committee berated lobbyists for not doing enough to help ensure the safety of students. So legislators and school boards passed strict zero tolerance policies. As is often the case with education reform, public sentiment has shifted, and now, said Preston, there is “a desire to move away from the very restrictive policies of the past.”
*EdSource Today is the news division of EdSource.