New state data show a steep drop in suspensions and expulsions of California students, continuing a recent downward trend. Altogether, 20 percent fewer students were expelled and 15 percent fewer students were suspended in 2013-14 than in the previous year.
Since 2011-12, suspensions have dropped by 25 percent and expulsions by 30 percent.
A steep drop in suspensions for “willful defiance” accounted for the bulk of the decrease in suspensions. This category has come under fire because it has been used to discipline a wide range of behaviors, from forgetting homework to disrespecting teachers, and has been applied disproportionately to African-American students. About 76,000 fewer suspensions for willful defiance or disruption of school activities were recorded in 2013-14, a drop of about 29 percent from the previous year. The number of suspensions includes multiple suspensions of the same students.
The percentage of students expelled for willful defiance also dropped, from 6 percent in 2012-13 to 4 percent in 2013-14. Beginning in January 2015, students can no longer be expelled for willful defiance, and K-3 students cannot be suspended for that reason.
“These numbers show that the work of the department, districts, teachers, parents, and students around the state is paying off by keeping more students in school and learning,” said Tom Torlakson, superintendent of public instruction, in a press release. “You can have the best facilities, the best teachers, and the best curriculum in the world, but none of that matters if students are not in school. That’s why we have put so much effort into increasing school attendance and reducing expulsions and suspensions and will continue to do so.”
“It’s very encouraging to see significant progress two years in a row,” said Laura Faer, education rights director for Public Counsel. “But we want to be cautious about our enthusiasm. We want to make sure the implementation is long-lasting and that we are reaching the children with social and emotional learning problems.”
The drop in the numbers of students suspended and expelled was substantial for all ethnicities, but African-American students remain disproportionately disciplined. They make up 6.2 percent of student enrollment but accounted for 16.4 percent of suspensions in 2013-14, a slightly higher percentage than the year before. Former Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who sponsored the legislation that curtailed the use of willful defiance, said he was encouraged by the results but that the disproportionate suspensions of African-American students “remind us that significant work must be done.”
Laura Faer, education rights director for Public Counsel, a public interest law firm based in Los Angeles, said it was “very encouraging to see significant progress two years in a row.” Her firm has worked with legislators and educators to encourage more positive disciplinary practices in schools.
“But we want to be cautious about our enthusiasm,” Faer said. “We want the numbers to reflect real school climate and culture changes that benefit students and teachers. We want to make sure the implementation is long-lasting and that we are reaching the children with social and emotional learning problems.”
Faer says she is “cautiously optimistic” that the drop in suspensions and expulsions “are reflecting real changes.” Public Counsel has reviewed 64 Local Control and Accountability Plans, which describe how districts plan to spend their funds and must include ways they are going to improve school climate. In that review, 75 percent of the districts planned to implement more positive disciplinary practices. And 15 of the districts are using restorative justice approaches to discipline, which require students to take responsibility for their behavior and make amends to those they have harmed. For example, if a student disrupts a class, he could apologize to the class and stay after school to help the teacher prepare for the next day.
New data released by Oakland Unified, which has been implementing restorative justice practices since 2010 in some of its schools, show improvement in reading and graduation rates. The percentage of 9th-graders reading at grade level more than doubled at restorative justice high schools, from 14 percent in 2010 to 33 percent in 2013. That compares to an increase of 11 percent in other schools in the district. During that same period, dropout rates declined by 56 percent in Oakland Unified high schools with restorative justice compared to 17 percent in other high schools.
“We must find ways to ensure students are in school every day, engaged in learning and feel valued and supported by adults,” said Oakland Unified superintendent Antwan Wilson in a press release. “Excessively punitive strategies, particularly for infractions such as ‘defiance,’ have proved counterproductive and driven children away from school. Our restorative approach is aimed at addressing the underlying problems behind student misconduct and creating positive practices to strengthen culture and improve student behavior.”
Other districts, including Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified and Pasadena Unified, have eliminated willful defiance as a reason to suspend or expel any student.
Azusa Unified in Los Angeles County also no longer suspends or expels students for that reason, according to Garry Creel, director of child welfare and attendance for the district.
“Suspensions don’t change behavior,” Creel said. “There are better ways to change behavior rather than excluding a student from school.”