What youth and civil rights advocates have called a decades-long suspension epidemic in California schools is showing signs of subsiding, with a new report finding that suspensions have dropped significantly across all student groups over a recent five-year period.
But alarming levels of lost days of instruction from suspensions remain, especially among African-Americans, Native Americans and students with disabilities, according to the report released this week by UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies. The report also identified troubling trends in middle schools and rural districts.
California K-12 students lost an estimated 763,690 days of instruction due to suspensions in 2016-17, the most recent year covered by the report. This represents a drop of nearly half from the 2011-12 school year, when students lost 1,419,404 days.
The researchers found that African-American students had the largest drop in lost school days across grades K-12 during the five years — going from 64 lost days per 100 students in 2011-12 to 39 in 2016-17 — narrowing the persistent gap between African-American students and their white counterparts. Yet the gap remained “disturbing,” the researchers said, with white students losing just 10 days of instruction per 100 students — 29 days less than African-Americans.
Meanwhile, Native American students lost 27 days per 100 students and Latino students lost 12. Students identified as Asian lost three days per 100 students, the lowest among all groups.
“I’m happy to see these reductions across the state of California,” said Daniel Losen, who is director of the UCLA center and co-authored the report with Kacy Martin. “It makes me believe that we are seeing a cultural change in California schools and [educators] are embracing the concept that there are better ways to address minor misbehaviors.”
Losen, however, was also quick to say that the number of lost days and the racial disparities are still unacceptable and that educators and policymakers must not become complacent. He also said he was concerned that the declines, which were sharp between the 2011-12 and 2014-15 school years, have leveled off in the past couple of years.
Youth and civil rights advocates have in recent years put a high priority on reducing suspensions, especially those for “disruption and defiance,” a catch-all category for unruly behavior that are by far the most common suspensions. Data also consistently show that these suspensions are disproportionately meted out to African-American and Native American students and students with disabilities.
In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a ban on disruption and defiance suspensions in grades K-3. In August, the state Legislature passed SB 607, authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, which would expand the ban to cover grades K-8. Brown hasn’t signed that bill and his office has thus far refused to comment on whether he will.
Lost in the middle
Among the report’s more disturbing findings, Losen said, was that 7th- and 8th-graders lost the most days to suspensions and the racial gaps were largest in the middle school grades. Statewide, suspensions in 7th and 8th grades accounted for 26 days of lost instruction per 100 students — more than double the rate of 12 days per 100 lost across all grades, the report found. African-American students lost 71 days per 100 students in 7th and 8th grades, while whites lost 19 per 100 students.
The report made note of research showing that students who get suspended in middle school and early in high school are more likely to drop out of high school than those not suspended. Losen said he hopes these sobering numbers help sway Brown to sign the suspension ban bill that would cover students through middle school.
“The numbers in middle school, especially for black students, are off the charts,” Losen said.
Losen said a hypothesis as to why suspensions spike in middle school is that many students come into middle school unprepared for approaches to discipline that are dramatically different than they are in the elementary grades. He added that implicit bias against students of color among teachers and administrators might be at its highest in middle school.
“As kids get older they are bigger and louder, and teachers may perceive their behavior as a bigger problem compared to behaviors in little kids,” Losen said. “Teaching appropriate behavior and having supportive environments is something we concentrate more on with younger children…as they get older there is a tendency to get tough.”
Disparities for students with disabilities
The researchers also continue to be dismayed by how school officials are disproportionately suspending students with disabilities, especially African-American and Native American students.
Students with disabilities not only lose three times as many days to suspensions as those without disabilities, the gaps between students with disabilities and those without are significantly wider among African-American and Native American students than they are among white students.
Losen said these realities are particularly frustrating because state and federal laws — most notably the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Americans with Disabilities Act — make it illegal to deny children access to education because they have a disability.
Thus, it’s hard for district officials to say they are abiding by the law when rates of lost instruction due to suspensions are much higher for students with disabilities, a pattern that holds true across racial groups, Losen said.
“We are not doing nearly enough in this regard,” he said. “There is a lot of work we need to do to meet their behavioral needs.”
Losen went on to say that among student groups, students with disabilities, who have individual education plans, likely face greater harm when they are kicked out of school than students without them. This is because they are receiving more attention and services during the school day and therefore have more to lose when they’re not in school.
Greater gaps in rural districts
This report went farther than most of its predecessors by calculating the lost instruction days down to the district level. The analysis revealed that districts with the highest number of days lost and widest racial gaps tended to be in rural areas, with a few exceptions.
Consider that eight of the 10 districts with the highest rate of days lost to suspensions in 2016-17 are in largely rural areas. Oroville Union High in Butte County had the most days lost, with 87 per 100 students, which is seven times the statewide rate. Oroville Union was followed by Mojave Unified in eastern Kern County, with 54 days lost, and Ceres Unified in Stanislaus County with 52.
Oroville Union also had by far the largest gap between African-American and white students statewide, the report found. African-American students in that district lost 251 days of instruction per 100 students, which is 21 times the statewide rate and 131 days more than their white counterparts. Next on the list is South San Francisco Unified, where African-Americans lost 117 days per 100 students, which is 40 more than white students lost in that district.
A lack of resources is the most likely culprit for the high rates in many rural districts, Losen said. Also, he said, the geography of rural communities makes it harder for parents and students to apply pressure on school boards to make reforms than it does in urban areas like Los Angeles and Oakland.
“In districts that are more spread out and serve a more transient population, parents and community members are going to have a harder time effectively engaging the district,” he said.
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