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Children in America’s public schools lost more than 11 million instructional days due to suspensions during the 2015-16 school year, with California students losing nearly 750,000 days, according to a report released this week by the ACLU and the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

The report, based on federal government data, also found that racial disparities in suspensions remain an acute problem. Nationwide, African-American students lost 66 days of instruction per 100 students enrolled in 2015-16, which is five times as many days as white students lost.

In California, meanwhile, there are four times as many white students enrolled in public schools as African-American students, yet the total number of instructional days lost by African-American students due to suspension was nearly the same as the number of days lost by whites — 141,000 for African Americans compared with 151,000 for whites, the report said.

“There are too many evidence-based alternatives to suspensions for there to be this level of educational deprivation,” said Amir Whitaker, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California who co-authored the report with Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

The disparities were also wide for California’s Native American students and students with disabilities. Native Americans lost 2.5 times as many days to suspensions as white students, and disabled students lost 2.6 times as many.

The gap between whites and Latinos was much smaller, with Latinos statewide losing 12 days of instruction per 100 students enrolled due to compared to 10 days for whites, the report said. Asian students were the least affected group — losing only three days of instruction per 100 students enrolled in California.

The report is based on data kept by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which collects suspension data from nearly every public school in the United States. The 2015-16 school year was the first time every school was required to collect and report data on the days of lost instruction due to out-of-school suspensions, the report said.

California making strides

Though they were critical of the wide racial disparities, the report’s authors said California’s efforts in recent years to reduce suspensions are bearing fruit. They pointed out that the overall state average of 12 days of lost instruction from suspensions for every 100 students enrolled is essentially half of the nationwide average of 23 days.

In some states, including Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia, students lost three times as many days to suspensions in 2015-16 than those in California. The District of Columbia, with 51 lost days per 100 students, was highest in the nation, according to the report.

Among the reasons the report’s authors gave for California’s relatively low numbers were its statewide ban on suspensions for disruption and defiance in grades K-3, which was enacted in 2014, as well as K-12 bans in several districts, including Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified. Suspension rates are also the main statewide indicator of school climate on the California School Dashboard, the state’s school accountability system, which debuted in 2017.

Between the 2011-12 and 2016-17 school years, suspensions of all types dropped by 46 percent statewide, with disruption and defiance suspensions dropping by 79 percent for African-American students, according to state data released late last year.

Losen and others are also optimistic about a $15 million grant in this year’s state budget that will be used to develop a training curriculum for educators that will emphasize restorative justice, social emotional learning and other alternatives that prioritize mediation and building healthy relationships over traditional punishments.

“California has made great strides in this area and is a positive example for other states across the nation,” said Losen, who added that even more progress could be made if the state expands the ban on disruption and defiance suspensions. The state Legislature is poised to pass a bill today that expands the ban to include grades K-8, but it’s not clear whether Gov. Jerry Brown will sign the bill into law.

The ACLU/UCLA report is harshly critical of the Trump Administration’s approach to school climate and discipline and questions Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ handling of her own department’s data. The authors pointed out that when the department’s Office for Civil Rights released the data set in April, it didn’t mention anything about the new data on lost days of instruction.

“In the past, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights would point out new data elements, and the concerns they raised about educational inequality,” the report said. “The Trump administration’s failure to even mention these new data raises concern that they will not pay attention to the serious civil rights issues raised by racially disparate discipline.”

Losen credited California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for leading a coalition of state attorneys general that penned a letter last week urging DeVos not to repeal Obama-era school discipline guidance aimed at protecting students’ civil rights.

DeVos has indicated that she would rescind the guidelines that emphasized alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. The guidelines highlighted data showing that students of color (particularly African-American boys) and those with disabilities were up to three times as likely as white students to face such punishments.

“[The letter] made it clear that suspending kids for minor offenses is the kind of policy that could fall afoul of civil rights protections,” Losen said.

This week’s report was the first in a series by the ACLU/UCLA authors focusing on the civil rights of children during the school day. Upcoming reports will focus on school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement, and the ratio of counselors and mental health professionals to law enforcement officers on school campuses.

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