California suspends too many students. In 2016-17, more than 233,000 students were suspended at least once. Combined, those students missed an estimated 760,000 days of school according to new research from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies.
As disturbing as these trends are, it is encouraging that these figures, from 2017, represent a significant improvement from just six years ago when the number of students suspended was 36 percent higher. The two largest districts in the state, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, have seen student suspensions decrease overall by 76 percent and 44 percent in the same amount of time, marking considerable progress.
Students who are more likely to be suspended are overwhelmingly the most disadvantaged: homeless youth, kids in foster care, students with disabilities, black young men and women, Native American youth, Pacific Islanders and Latino males. A variety of studies have shown that suspensions not only contribute to lower levels of student achievement but are also ineffective at reducing perceived behavior problems among targeted students. Research shows that the problem is pervasive, affecting students from preschool to high school.
For the next five years, Orange and Butte counties and our center at UCLA will lead a state pilot aimed at reducing suspensions and improving school climate through a training curriculum based on a multi-tiered system of support, or MTSS, model. Working collaboratively with students and educators, we plan to design, refine and implement training modules that will promote improved relationships with students, particularly across race, language and socio-economic differences. This student support framework is already being implemented in 600 California districts. It is an approach that focuses on addressing students’ learning and behavioral needs through a variety of non-punitive, educational interventions. If implemented well, it could serve as an effective means to address stark differences in educational opportunity that are apparent by race and income throughout the state.
In undertaking this large and complex project, we start from the premise that schools must be safe and orderly, and no effort to reduce suspensions should undermine this essential requisite.
However, we also recognize that an over-reliance on suspensions is both ineffective in addressing most discipline problems and at odds with the purpose of education: to ensure that students have the opportunity to learn. Many schools have relied on suspensions as the primary form of discipline for years, often stumped by the expectations for approaching behavior problems differently. Even when they have clear evidence that suspensions don’t work because they are suspending the same students repeatedly and there is no evidence that suspensions are leading to change in behavior, many schools lack the wherewithal and creativity to handle matters differently.
For this reason, this partnership has been launched to help schools design interventions that are both creative and effective at responding to discipline infractions. Research has shown that strategies such as after-school tutoring, community service and targeted interventions for students with mental health challenges can all be effective as part of a multi-tiered system of support.
The initiative will also help schools in implementing schoolwide restorative justice strategies which, when implemented effectively, can provide students and adults with the opportunity to reflect on how their behavior has impacted others and take steps to rectify the harm they may have caused.
Helping schools to change the way they approach discipline will also help them to address the underlying causes of behavior problems and academic disengagement. Academic difficulties, parental neglect, bullying and childhood trauma are just some of the factors that may contribute to behavior problems in schools.
Lacking the ability to address these issues and the ability to enact effective alternatives, many schools continue to suspend students even when they know that by excluding their most vulnerable students they are actually undermining efforts to improve academic performance.
For many schools, changes in discipline practices also require a change in the overall culture of the school. In schools characterized by strained and even dysfunctional relationships between staff and students, restorative strategies can be implemented effectively only if all school personnel are trained and invested in creating supportive learning environments. When such changes occur, improved relationships can lead to improvements in student conduct and academic outcomes.
California has an opportunity to be a national leader in positive discipline approaches, drawing connections to innovative strategies to boost academic engagement and achievement. Making it happen in a state as large and diverse as California will be a tremendous challenge but it is one we all must embrace. Suspensions should be used as a last resort, not the go-to strategy for addressing discipline. We can do a better job than we have. Our kids deserve it.
Pedro A. Noguera is a Distinguished Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. He is also the founder of the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA. Joseph P. Bishop is the center’s director.
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