California ahead of most states in abolishing harsh disciplinary policies

June 5, 2014

A report released this week by The Council of State Governments Justice Center calls on school districts across the nation to hold themselves accountable for a positive school climate as well as test scores.

“Research and data on school discipline is clear,” according to a synopsis of the 400-page report, School Discipline Consensus Report: Key Findings, Recommendations and Examples of Action. “Millions of students are being removed from their classrooms each year, overwhelmingly for minor misconduct. Students experiencing suspensions and expulsions are disproportionately nonwhite, disabled and students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”

Suspending students, particularly for minor offenses, is a serious issue because it “substantially increases the likelihood they will fall behind academically, drop out and enter the juvenile justice system,” according to the report.

California’s recent efforts to reduce suspensions and encourage more positive approaches to discipline puts the state “at the top of the list together with a handful of other states” in promoting a healthy school climate, said Michael Thompson, director of the Justice Center.

“California has become a real leader in this conversation,” Thompson said. “Top policy makers and school officials have made a positive school climate a priority.”

At the unveiling of the report in Los Angeles on Thursday, one of the policy makers who has been leading efforts to reform school discipline policies, Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, said the report is important because it represents a consensus-based approach “for all of those who have an investment in making sure young people stay in school.”

The report involved more than 100 advisers representing policy makers, school administrators, teachers, behavioral health professionals, police, court leaders, probation officials, juvenile correctional leaders, parents and youth across the country. Another 600 individuals shared examples of promising practices that are outlined in the report, which took three years to complete.

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In conjunction with the release of the national report, The Center for Civil Rights Remedies on Thursday provided an analysis of state data that showed that 500 out of 745 California school districts reduced out-of-school suspensions between 2011-12 and 2012-13. Although African American students were still over-represented, the racial gap is narrowing, the center reported. The results included only the 745 districts that had discipline data for both years and excluded county offices of education, according to the center, which is part of the Civil Rights Project at University of California, Los Angeles.

The center also reported an overall reduction in suspensions by 14 percent and a 24 percent reduction in suspensions for willful defiance, which has been criticized as being too subjective and for being used disproportionately with African American students. Dickinson has introduced a bill, Assembly Bill 420, this legislative session to limit the use of willful defiance suspensions. A similar bill passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Dickinson said he is working with the governor to get his support of the current bill.

But just reducing suspensions “is not success,” Thompson said. “It’s very possible to reduce suspensions but all you are doing is tolerating bad behavior in the classroom. That’s not tolerable. There needs to be an interplay between suspensions and building a positive school climate. Do students feel welcomed and supported in the classroom? Do they feel there is an adult there who wants them to succeed?”

“We want to see building a positive school climate and reducing suspensions move in tandem,” he said. “It’s part and parcel of the same strategy that makes things better for all students.”

Thompson said he was particularly impressed by the waiver request from the No Child Left Behind law sought by seven districts in the state, including LA Unified. In the request, which the federal government granted, the districts said they wanted to be held accountable not only for test scores, but also school climate, such as suspension rates.

“Those districts are asking the federal government to take school climate into account when awarding federal dollars,” Thompson said. In 2011, LA Unified became the first district in California to eliminate willful defiance as a reason for suspension or expulsion.

Since the policy was eliminated and other positive approaches to discipline were implemented, not only have suspensions dropped dramatically, but student achievement, graduation rates, attendance rates and state achievement test scores have all risen, said LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy, who spoke at the unveiling of the report in Los Angeles.

“If you stay with us, you’ll learn more,” Deasy said. “If we push you out, you don’t do well.”

The Justice Center report includes more than 60 recommendations, including 12 key recommendations regarding conditions for learning, behavioral interventions, school-police partnerships, and courts and juvenile justice. For example, under conditions of learning, the report recommends that schools develop codes of conduct for students and adults. Suspensions should be a last resort, the report states, after alternative interventions – such as peer conferences, restorative justice practices and referral to a student-support team – have been exhausted. The report cited Fresno Unified, Oakland Unified and San Francisco Unified as examples of districts that are implementing restorative justice approaches to discipline, where students are asked to face up to how they have harmed the school community and make amends.

Thompson said the report is a “comprehensive catalog of recommendations” rather than a “one-size-fits-all to do list.”

To start the process, districts first must get the right people around the table, including advocates for positive discipline approaches, teachers and law enforcement personnel, he said. In addition, he said, it’s important to have good data when interventions start so their impact can be measured. Only 17 states, including California, report how many students are suspended and their types of misbehavior, gender and race, he said.

The Justice Center launched the Consensus Report project in 2011 after its study on discipline practices in Texas schools found that nearly 60 percent of Texas secondary school students were suspended or expelled at least once. Texas, like California, is now seen as a leader in implementing a change from zero tolerance policies, Thompson said.

Susan Frey covers expanded learning time. Contact her. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.





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