The number of suspensions reported by California schools continue their steady decline, with about half as many students sent home for disciplinary reasons during the 2017-18 school year as had been at the beginning of the decade, according to recent data released by the California Department of Education.
The statewide number of suspensions dipped to 363,000 last year, down from 710,000 issued during the 2011-12 school year, the data show. However, the so-called “suspension gap,” which refers to the disproportionate number of African-American students suspended, remains.
The overall decline has been driven by a massive drop in so-called “willful defiance and disruption” suspensions, which are meted out to students for “disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying school staff,” according to the state education code.
California schools issued about 335,000 such suspensions to K-12 students during the 2011-12 school year, the state data show. In 2017-18, the number had dropped below 60,000. Contributing significantly to the decrease is the ban on defiance and disruption suspensions in grades K-3 that Gov. Jerry Brown signed in 2014.
While children in early primary grades account for a small sliver of all students suspended, experts on the issue agree that the limited ban led districts to focus more on reducing defiance and disruption suspensions among older students, with some districts — including Los Angeles and Oakland Unified — banning them in all grades.
When defiance and disruption suspensions are excluded, the overall decline is far less dramatic — a drop of just 19 percent statewide, according to an EdSource analysis. Suspensions relating to incidents schools described as “violent” dropped by 16 percent.
African-American and Native American students had the largest percentage drops, with suspensions issued to both declining by more than half over the six-year-period, the data show. Yet, African-American students are still three times as likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.
Youth and civil rights advocates, the head of the state’s largest teachers’ union and a representative of the association representing school administrators welcomed the ongoing decline as evidence that discipline reform efforts in California are working.
“The state has come a long way. (Suspensions for) defiance are now only 16 percent of all suspensions — they were about half a few years ago,” said Amir Whitaker, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “But 60,000 suspensions causing over 100,000 lost days of instruction is still too much…progress hasn’t come fast enough for the student who will be kicked out of biology class.”
Local control vs civil rights
A common argument for outlawing these suspensions altogether is the role that unconscious, or “implicit,” racial biases among teachers and administrators plays in school discipline. A large body of research has shown that African-American students, along with students with disabilities, tend to be more closely watched by teachers and administrators for misbehavior than their white counterparts. And when they do misbehave, the punishment they receive can be more severe.
This issue will likely be spotlighted in the coming days or weeks because the Trump Administration is expecting a report from the Federal Commission on School Safety headed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The Washington Post is reporting that the commission is likely to recommend canceling an Obama-era initiative aimed at reducing racial disparities in school discipline.
The racial disparities, however, aren’t the only reason why youth advocates want to see defiance and disruption suspensions eliminated. They see them as an overly broad category that can ensnare students, regardless of their race, for behavior that should receive a lighter punishment.
While the suspension rates were far higher for African-American students than most other groups, there were still more than 12,000 white students and more than 33,000 Latino students suspended for behaviors deemed defiant or disruptive in 2017-18, the data show.
The ACLU’s Whitaker was among the leaders of a coalition this year that pushed for SB 607, a bill authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) that called for expanding the K-3 ban on defiance and disruption suspensions to include students in higher grades. The bill made it through the Legislature but Brown vetoed it.
Brown, as he did when rejecting previous suspension ban legislation, cited his belief in the principle of local control that has been the centerpiece of his education agenda as the rationale for his veto. “Teachers and principals are on the front lines of educating our children and are in the best position to make decisions about order and discipline in the classrooms,” Brown said in his Sept. 30 veto message.
He went on to mention a $15-million grant in the current state budget that will fund a pilot program aimed at providing more resources for alternatives to suspensions and other traditional punishments. “Let’s give educators a chance to invest that money wisely before issuing any more directives from the state,” he wrote.
The grant program, which will be overseen by the county offices of education in Orange and Butte counties and run by UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools, will emphasize restorative justice, social-emotional learning and other alternatives that emphasize mediation and building healthy relationships over traditional punishments.
In years past, the push for an expanded ban on defiance and disruption suspensions came almost entirely from youth and civil rights advocates. But this year, it was supported by the powerful Association of California School Administrators.
“It’s important to recognize work being done in school sites to use alternative practices to deal with behavioral issues,” said Iván Carrillo, a legislative advocate for the school administrators’ association. “With that said, we cannot ignore the continued disproportionality in which certain groups of students, particularly African-Americans, are being suspended,”
Like other advocates, Daniel Losen, director of UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, applauds the progress already made in reducing suspensions. But, he said, the statewide numbers mask problems that appear when the data is compared on a county-by-county or district-by-district basis.
“It’s not right when you have a district that has found ways to reduce its dependence on suspensions, but then move one district over and the rates are high,” said Losen, who runs UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies. “This idea that Brown has that we just defer to local control doesn’t work when kids’ civil rights are at stake.”
Losen’s point can be seen when comparing rates in Los Angeles and Alameda counties, where Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified have instituted their own K-12 bans, to those of their neighbors. In Los Angeles County, 2 percent of students were suspended at least once in 2017-18. Go to bordering Kern County and the rate jumps to 4.2 percent, according to the EdSource analysis. Similarly, Alameda County’s rate is 3.3 percent, while neighboring San Joaquin’s is 5.9 percent.
Reducing violence in schools
There is little disagreement regarding the need for districts to focus on suspensions due to violence, which have dropped at much slower rates than those for disruption and defiance. And all agree that not nearly enough money is being spent hiring more psychologists and counselors and training staff in discipline alternatives.
Eric Heins, who is president of the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the push to reduce suspensions without corresponding investments in alternatives to traditional discipline has led to instances in which lower suspension rates do not necessarily mean less chaotic classrooms.
“If a student is sent back to the classroom without any restorative practices, then you are just continuing a problem situation,” Heins said. “We call this gaming the numbers. (Administrators say) ‘look, we’ve reduce suspensions,’ but you really haven’t helped the student succeed.”
Heins went on to say that even with the local-control-focused reforms under Brown, the state’s school accountability system (known as the California School Dashboard) puts too much emphasis on simply reducing suspensions and not enough on overall school climates.
Suspension rates are among the six statewide indicators on the dashboard. School climate surveys, meanwhile, are part of the dashboard but only as local indicators, which don’t receive the same attention as statewide indicators.
“We would like to see a blended indicator that incorporates suspensions and expulsions with a statewide school climate indicator,” Heins said.