California students and parents have been at the forefront of a national movement to promote common-sense school discipline policies, and their hard work is paying off.
According to data recently released by the California Department of Education, our state is suspending fewer students, promoting alternatives to harsh school discipline and helping more young people stay in school.
Many education and health leaders are jubilant. Limiting suspension-first approaches to handling discipline issues has already helped increase graduation rates, and over the long run that means better jobs for today’s young people and a lifetime of improved health.
However, our progress is now in jeopardy. The Legislature has only until July 1 to renew and expand limits on suspensions for minor “willful defiance” infractions. If the Legislature and governor fail to act in time, the results could be devastating.
Five years ago, California schools issued an astounding 709,702 suspensions, nearly half for willful defiance — a catch-all category used to justify disciplinary action for minor misconduct, like talking back or chewing gum. Black students were more than four times as likely to be suspended as white students and they received harsher penalties on average, even when accused of similar behavior. Latino students and students with disabilities also faced disproportionate suspension risk.
Independent research confirms these suspension-first school discipline policies produce negative health, education and economic outcomes. One recent study found that even a single high school suspension is associated with a two-fold increase in the likelihood of dropping out, and a separate study found that suspensions among a single year of 10th-graders lowered graduation rates by nearly seven percentage points and cost California almost $3 billion in lost tax revenue and higher health care costs.
At the same time, suspensions did absolutely nothing to improve school climate or increase academic achievement. One review from the American Psychological Association concluded that “zero tolerance” policies may worsen classroom environments, by creating an adversarial relationship between students and school staff.
To help young people build a healthier future, students, families and communities themselves launched a movement for change. They persuaded many schools and school districts to adopt new approaches that hold students accountable for their conduct while keeping them in school.
State government followed by enacting an historic law that prohibited schools from suspending K-3 students for willful defiance for three-and-a-half years, beginning January 1, 2015.
The law was intended as a kind of experiment: ban suspensions for defiance, and see what happens.
The results of that experiment are now in. It is an unqualified success.
Overall, suspensions are down nearly 50%, academic achievement has improved and graduation rates have increased. African American students are still more likely than are whites to be suspended, but the disparities gap has declined. And, defying the predictions of some naysayers, the official California Healthy Kids Survey reports that students and teachers feel safer on campus than they did before the defiance ban took effect.
Advocates for school discipline reform have been working with state leaders for months to determine how far to extend the current law. They expected to reach agreement before the close of the 2017 legislative session, but a packed end-of-year agenda pushed the issue into 2018. And now, the clock is ticking.
State leaders must take the upcoming deadline seriously and move swiftly. Failing to reach agreement and allowing the current policy to expire would be a tragedy, with long-term negative education, health and fiscal consequences for our children and our state.
Dr. Robert Ross is president and CEO of The California Endowment, a private health foundation headquartered in Los Angeles.
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