Getting “smart on crime” means we cannot focus solely on arrests and continue to look for upstream solutions. After 29 years in law enforcement, I’m concerned with the cycles of violence and poverty that threaten the future of our children.
We can do a better job preventing crimes before they occur and keeping kids in school and off the street is a good place to start. A high school diploma goes a long way towards steering kids down a crime-free path. But each year well over 200,000 California students are suspended from school, many for relatively minor misbehavior, and close to 100,000 California students fail to graduate from high school on time.
There are proven interventions we can use to address California’s dropout crisis. But we stand the best chance of success if we shine a light on the most significant contributors to dropping out, and incentivize schools to help high-need students before it’s too late, through a quality accountability system.
In light of California’s recently implemented Local Control Funding Formula and the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the State Board of Education is currently deciding which key indicators it will use to drive our accountability system. The selected indicators will ultimately help identify which schools and districts are in need of technical assistance and intervention. The State Board would do well to include suspension rates as one of those key indicators.
Behavior problems that lead to suspension often emerge before, and help trigger, attendance and academic problems. Compelling research shows that students who have been suspended have far higher dropout rates and are significantly more likely than their peers to become involved in the juvenile justice system.
It makes sense: students suspended from school lose out on valuable instructional time in the classroom without having their underlying issues addressed. Though a suspension may penalize poor behavior today, the lost learning time accumulates and often leads to poor academic outcomes tomorrow.
The reality is that kids who are misbehaving in school need more attention, not less. When students don’t get that extra attention and are instead removed from class, this contributes to an expanding achievement gap that increases the likelihood of dropping out.
California has made great strides in its efforts to reform punitive student discipline practices. Thanks in large part to the implementation of research-based strategies like restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in school districts throughout the state, suspension rates in California have fallen 33 percent over the past three years.
Most of this progress involves relatively minor misbehavior: three-quarters of the decline in suspensions statewide was the result of fewer suspensions issued specifically for “disruption or willful defiance”—a broad category used to describe less serious and non-violent misbehavior.
So long as educators have the support and tools needs to succeed, done right, alternatives to suspensions can improve both behavior and academic achievement. A recent study by the Center for Civil Rights and Remedies at UCLA, Closing the School Discipline Gap in California: Signs of Progress, found that lower suspension rates correlate with higher test scores across all races and ethnicities. This helps alleviate concerns that reducing suspensions will have a negative impact.
The Berkeley Unified School District, for example, has reduced out-of-school suspension rates across all demographics while simultaneously increasing test scores, according to the UCLA study. For example, Berkeley High School had 166 suspensions in 2014-15, down from 307 suspensions in 2011-12. Ongoing efforts at Berkeley Unified include a restorative justice pilot program at the high school level—a program which teachers, when surveyed, indicated as the biggest contributor towards advancing the district’s over-arching equity and school climate goals—and a specially selected and trained school resource officer (SRO) who helps provide a safe and secure learning environment, mentors students as a counselors and role models and keeps kids out of trouble through prevention and positive early intervention. The resource officer, who is part of the Berkeley police department, participates in mediations, School Attendance Review Boards, and the Community Works Restorative Justice Program while also working closely with staff to help kids in crisis and keep the campus safe. The previous SRO was a former HS teacher and the current SRO holds a master’s degree in Social Welfare from UC Berkeley. District administrators also use data on discipline and academic achievement to target interventions towards struggling students before unmet academic or behavioral needs contribute to the escalation of problematic misbehavior that could lead to suspension.
There is still work to be done. Some California school districts still issue as many as 30 suspensions for every 100 students. By focusing on suspensions as a key indicator in our state’s accountability system we can continue moving forward with common sense school discipline strategies that keep kids in school and out of the criminal justice system.
Michael K. Meehan is chief of the Berkeley Police Department.
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