African-American students at Long Beach Unified more likely to be suspended, report finds

October 26, 2016

A black and white photo of a police officer in an empty building walking down a flight of stairs.

This story was updated on Oct. 27 to reflect a more detailed response from the Long Beach Unified School District.

African-American, Latino and Pacific Islander students in the Long Beach Unified School District are suspended at much higher rates than their white peers, according to a new study by the Children’s Defense Fund-California and the Public Counsel law firm.

The report, released Tuesday, found African-American students are nearly 14 times more likely to be suspended than white students in Long Beach Unified, even though both groups represent just over 13 percent of students there. The study also found that Latino and Pacific Islander students are four times more likely to be suspended than white students. And it found that students of color are disproportionately transferred from the district’s traditional comprehensive high schools to alternative schools.

With roughly 78,000 students, Long Beach is the state’s third-largest district, behind Los Angeles and San Diego. Those districts have revamped their discipline policies to include restorative justice or trauma-informed approaches. Rather than focusing on punitive measures to modify student behavior, restorative justice allows children to engage in a number of practices to make amends for wrongdoing, including roundtable discussions or conflict resolution sessions, while a trauma-informed approach prioritizes meeting children’s emotional, physical and academic needs.

The Children’s Defense Fund and Public Counsel say Long Beach has not adapted its policies to better respond to students’ individual circumstances. They recommend that Long Beach organize community dialogues about racial equity, provide teachers with implicit bias training and curb spending on school police. The report states that African-American and Latino students account for 86 percent of the district’s student-police contact, despite accounting for 69 percent of district enrollment.

The district disputes many of the figures cited in the report, said Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou. In a statement issued Thursday, he said the report’s researchers didn’t use the California Department of Education’s methodology to calculate the district’s suspensions rate. Using the department’s approach, African-American students in Long Beach are six times more likely to be suspended than white students, not 14 times more likely.

Eftychiou acknowledged that this still means that a disproportionate number of African-American youth are suspended but said racial disparities in suspensions are prevalent in a number of districts. Long Beach Unified also disputed the discipline numbers the school climate study reported for Latino and Pacific Islander students.

Eftychiou also said the district doesn’t have a school police department. However, Long Beach Unified’s budget plan has funding for School Safety and Emergency Preparedness staff, which includes campus security. He said those funds account for just 1.26 percent of its budget.

When contacted about the district’s response, Angelica Salazar, senior policy associate for Children’s Defense Fund-California, said the study authors stand by their findings.

“The district needs to take bold action, including having a conversation about racial justice with stakeholders,” said Angelica Salazar, senior policy associate with Children’s Defense Fund-California.

Eftychiou said local constituents have considerable influence in planning and reviewing district policy and that Long Beach has implemented some of the suggestions outlined in the study. School officials, for example, have participated in summits to address ways to improve the academic outcomes of male students of color. The district is transparent about its policies and expenditures, according to Eftychiou. He said Long Beach Unified has made disaggregated data about a number of issues available to the public.

To calculate racial disparities in student discipline in Long Beach, Children’s Defense Fund and Public Counsel analysts compared the number of students from specific ethnic groups suspended from 2011 to 2015 to their makeup in the district as a whole to determine the suspension rate per 100 students. In addition, they examined suspension rates at specific schools or in academies at those schools. The researchers also considered whether students had been suspended more than once.

Felton Williams, the sole African-American member of the Long Beach school board and its immediate past president, disagreed with the report’s findings and questioned the accuracy of the figures cited in the study. He said the district has listened to the concerns about school climate raised by the Children’s Defense Fund and other advocacy groups for years now.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’ve done what we’ve needed to do,” he said. “We’re always open and receptive to anybody’s concerns.”

Williams said that sometimes critics of the school district simply look at the suspension data and not the reasons behind suspensions. If students bring weapons or drugs to school, attack teachers or threaten to do so, their behavior must be addressed, he said. District staff has received training about when to use alternatives to suspensions, he said. For example, students who forget to bring their P.E. uniform to gym class should not be suspended.

Williams disagrees with the recommendation that the district provide implicit bias training for staffers.

“When you talk about implicit bias, that’s a very rough statement to make,” Williams said. “How do you measure [bias]; how is that quantified? Who is actually deemed to be biased? They want to throw something out there without being able to add a true meaning. It’s just not reasonable.”

The study authors argue that the time for Long Beach to shift away from punitive discipline practices is long overdue. They acknowledge that suspensions in the district have dropped for all groups since the 2012-13 school year, when they documented 11,752 suspensions in Long Beach, but say that glaring disparities remain. Like African-American students, special education students are disproportionately suspended, the report found. During the 2014-15 school year, there were 17 suspensions per 100 special education students, compared to 5.6 suspensions per 100 students in the general population, according to the study.

Instead of using the state’s general guidelines for discipline, the study authors conclude that Long Beach would benefit from adopting a discipline policy tailored to its unique makeup of students. They also assert that hiring an additional 192 school counselors could offset troublesome student behavior. The American School Counselor Association recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 250 in schools. But the school climate report found that in Long Beach schools, the ratio of counselors to students is 1 to 670.

Long Beach Unified disputes the report’s findings about suspensions of special education students, saying the report’s authors inflated those numbers. The district said the number of counselors has dropped but the ratio of counselors to students is 1 to 320, not 1 to 670. Public Counsel and the Children’s Defense Fund say they calculated the figures
using information the school district provided.

Williams said that Long Beach won’t overhaul its practices and procedures because of outside pressures. He said that new discipline policies have resulted in teachers in Los Angeles Unified feeling as though they can’t punish students without reprisal.

“Our suspension data is moving in the right direction,” he said. “When it comes to other school districts, sometimes you can’t compare apples to oranges. There have been a number of school districts where outside groups come in and make recommendations that have been detrimental to the school district.”

Salazar said the district needs to take concrete steps to reduce racial disparities in discipline, just as other school districts have. She said it’s inexcusable that African-American students are disciplined most severely in Long Beach.

“Community members have advocated for solutions for years – restorative justice, an increase in support staff such as counselors and mental health professionals, implicit bias training,” she said. “The district needs to take bold action, including having a conversation about racial justice with stakeholders. There is a need to acknowledge the harm and to heal from it.”

Nadra Nittle is a freelance reporter based in Southern California.

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