California’s student suspension rates are far higher in rural schools

January 17, 2019

Destiney Williams, 12, talks about her repeated suspensions from Ishi Hills Middle School, in Oroville. Schools in the Butte County rural town post some of the highest suspension rates in California.

While California has made substantial progress in reducing school suspensions, it faces a challenge in often overlooked rural regions of the state, where student suspension rates are significantly higher than those of urban areas.

Destiney Williams is a student in one of those rural regions.

The 12-year-old moved frequently around Northern California, first with her birth mom and then to more than half a dozen foster homes, before settling into her latest placement in Oroville, a rural community in the Sierra foothills 70 miles north and a world away from Sacramento.

The 7th-grader has adjusted well to her new home, says Rachel Cowan, her foster mother, who hopes to adopt her. But Destiney’s experience in middle school has been a different story.

Destiney, who is African-American, was suspended half a dozen times from Ishi Hills Middle School in 6th grade — in part for behavior that Cowan and school records she provided to EdSource describe as swearing in front of teachers, hitting a girl and swatting a boy with her ruler. Destiney said of the latter incident that the boy wouldn’t stop calling her “crusty.”

Some are behaviors that a growing number of urban schools might have dealt with in ways that kept Destiney in the classroom, such as “restorative justice” practices that help students understand and remedy harm they’ve caused, efforts to improve overall school climate so students feel safe and respected and curriculum that helps students understand and manage their emotions.

Not unexpectedly, Destiney has fallen behind in school. The more she’s suspended the less she wants to be there, said Cowan, who manages a nonprofit youth center in town. Destiney’s experience with multiple suspensions, it turns out, is not unusual in vast parts of California.

School suspensions in grades K-12 have dropped across California by more than a quarter over the past five years, due largely to a growing consensus that excluding kids from the classroom fails to correct behavior and worsens student outcomes and attitudes toward school. But the decline in suspensions is driven by schools in cities and suburbs, which educate 90 percent of California’s more than 6 million students,

Outside urban areas, suspensions are far more common. As in urban schools, African-American and Native American students were suspended most often, at rates far greater than their proportion of the student population, an EdSource analysis of 2017-18 data showed. Those rural rates far exceeded urban rates. Perhaps more strikingly, suspensions of white students across rural schools were also significantly higher than at urban schools, particularly in the largely white rural counties of Northern California, which posted some of the state’s highest overall suspension rates.

EdSource analyzed data for each of the state’s nearly 10,000 schools by urban and rural designation.

In sparsely populated rural regions as well as in towns in largely rural areas — such as Butte County’s Oroville — schools reported eight suspensions for every 100 white students enrolled in 2017-18, one and a half times the rate of schools that are located in cities and suburbs. Rural schools logged 22 suspensions for every 100 black students enrolled, compared to just over 15 per 100 black students at urban schools. Rural schools reported 17 suspensions for every 100 Native American students and seven suspensions for every 100 Latino students.

 The state defines suspension rates as the percentage of individual students who are suspended during the school year. EdSource instead analyzed the total number of suspensions per 100 students — by school and racial or ethnic background — in order to capture multiple suspensions of individual students.

Destiney’s school, for example, logged 47 suspensions per 100 white students in 2017-18. Suspensions per hundred black students were more than double that, at 120. Of 15 black students enrolled at Ishi Hills Middle School, data shows, five were suspended 18 times.

The push to reduce California suspensions was born in cities and “really focused on black and brown people being pushed out in huge numbers,” said Tia Martinez, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit consulting firm Forward Change and one of a handful of California experts to study rural suspensions. But the student groups excluded from the classroom the most have shifted, she said, to include not just “black and brown youth” but “poor white youth,” particularly in California’s northern rural counties.

According to interviews with educators and experts on both rural schools and student discipline, behind the high suspension rates in Oroville and many other rural areas are family struggles with poverty, mental illness, addiction and parental incarceration; a dearth of resources to address those needs; and underfunded schools with less access to training on alternate approaches to discipline. Per-capita child abuse and neglect reports for Butte County far exceed the statewide average. And the Butte County Sheriff’s Department estimates that 80 percent of crime and as many as 50 percent of foster care placements are linked to methamphetamine addiction.

On top of those challenges, Butte County is now reeling from the Camp Fire, the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in state history. The blaze left thousands of students from the ridge communities northeast of Oroville homeless and Oroville as well as its schools are taking some of them in.

Some youth who’ve experienced trauma act out in the classroom. Others disengage. Though many urban schools have adopted approaches to probe the root of student behavior while keeping them in class, in many rural schools and districts a mindset persists that dealing with discipline problems through suspensions is essential to teaching kids proper behavior and maintaining calm classrooms, said Susan Hukkanen, a consultant to rural schools who retired last summer as an assistant superintendent in the Butte County Office of Education.

“I wouldn’t call it hopelessness but there is a lack of vision for the future,” said Hukkanen, who recently helped launch the California Rural Ed Network to help educators in what she calls “isolated, underserved and woefully underfunded rural schools” share resources. Students, she said, are “coming to school with these challenges and the way we used to do business is no longer effective.”

The EdSource analysis found suspension rates for all student groups were highest at schools in rural towns and lowest at those in cities. The farther a town from a city, and the higher the poverty rate, the higher the suspension rates.

Oroville offers a case in point. More than three-fourths of students who attend its two public school districts are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. And all but two of its dozen public schools ranked in the top tenth of California schools for their high rates of suspension in 2017-18.

Oroville’s two traditional high schools — Oroville High and Las Plumas High — enroll kids from a nearly 800-square-mile area and the adjustment to the new disciplinary expectations can be tough for the students, said Doug Williams, who was principal at Oroville High School for three years before leaving this past summer.

Williams left his post to become principal at Chico High School, a half hour drive further north. Classified as a “city” school, its suspension rates are below the statewide average. In contrast, Williams said, Oroville faces some distinctly rural challenges.

In the first few months of the last school year, Williams said, his counselors flagged nearly three dozen kids for potential mental health commitment as dangers to themselves or others. Among his student families, he said, were parents addicted to opioids and methamphetamine, surviving on sales of illegal marijuana they grow at home and so fearful of losing their children to county Child Protective Services that they shun visits from school officials. Williams said a growing number of students are classified as homeless — a trend exacerbated by the recent Camp Fire.

Behavioral expectations may not be clear at home, Williams said, but he and his staff drilled into new arrivals what’s expected at school. Though he said he directed teachers to attempt half a dozen interventions before moving to suspension — including Saturday detention or community service doing campus cleanup — there were no second chances for fights, threatening violence or bringing drugs or weapons to school. Nor was persistent classroom disruption tolerated.

The numbers reflect that. During the 2017-18 school year, Oroville High reported 30 suspensions per 100 white students enrolled — six times the rate for white students in city schools statewide. As for African-American students, Oroville High reported 52 suspensions per 100 black students enrolled — three times the rate at city schools.

State law since 2015 has banned suspensions in grades K-3 solely for “willful defiance” of school authorities and several K-12 urban school districts — including Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco unified — have all but eliminated such suspensions across all grades. Schools statewide in 2017-18 reported “defiance only” as the reason for 17 percent of all white student suspensions and 15 percent of black student suspensions. Oroville High’s reported rates were triple that, with defiance listed as the sole cause for 59 percent of white student suspensions and half of black student suspensions.

Williams was unapologetic in insisting that students learn they can’t disrupt a class with bad behavior.

“If a kid is saying, ‘F-you, I’m not doing this,’ what about the other 34 kids in that classroom?” he said.

Students had a different take. They shared their stories with EdSource at their homes, a local skate park and at The Axiom, the downtown Oroville nonprofit youth center where Destiney’s new foster mom works. Among them were kids who said repeated suspensions left them feeling alienated and hurt them academically. “I missed out on a lot of school getting suspended a lot and now that I’m in high school I don’t know what to do, and I’m failing,” said Tahj Wright, 17, who said he struggled to fit in and was withdrawn at Ishi Hills Middle School. The teen said peers bullied him about his appearance and school officials suspended him for verbal confrontations and some physical fights.

Ishi Hills Principal Chris Renzullo said he could not comment on student disciplinary records for privacy reasons. But, as at Oroville High, teachers generally attempt multiple interventions before the school moves to suspend. Swearing in class, throwing things or hitting, however, can result in immediate suspension.

Credit: Lee Romney

Tahj Wright hangs out after school at The Axiom, a teen center in downtown Oroville. He says his suspensions in middle school set him back academically once he got to Oroville High. Schools in this Butte County rural town post some of the highest suspension rates in California.

Then there’s Oroville High School student Shawn Sullivan. Thin, with a mop of brown hair, the 16-year-old said that plenty of his friends have been suspended multiple times.

“Some of the teachers, they think ‘This guy’s not going to be good this semester.’ So why should you show someone respect when they give you that vibe?” said Sullivan, who himself was suspended once last year — for what he says was taking a second school breakfast in the cafeteria.

At Oroville High, the role of chief disciplinarian over the past three years fell to Assistant Principal Cristi Tellechea, an 18-year veteran of the school who took over as principal this fall. Tellechea said she spends as much time as possible getting to know kids so she can remind them of what they do well.

But she and other staff are stretched thin. Both Oroville and Las Plumas high schools had two assistant principals until declining enrollment resulted in less funding from the state, said Oroville Union High School District Superintendent Corey Willenberg. So principals must monitor campus every day with a single assistant principal, while also staffing each sporting event, dance and weekend activity.

“In a small district,” Willenberg said, “we don’t have a lot of the infrastructure to be proactive” to better prevent school suspensions.

Tellechea, however, said she wouldn’t change her approach to discipline even if more resources appeared. Instead, she would add “another me” — a caring adult who could earn students’ trust and help them avert trouble.

“What you won’t see in your statistics,” she said, “is the number of conflict resolution conversations we have every day.”

Willenberg, Williams, Tellechea, Renzullo and the principal of Oroville’s other middle school were adamant in interviews that race plays no role in their approach to student discipline.

But black families here say they believe that bias against black students — even if unconscious — does factor in, pushing the youth into continuation or community day schools and in some cases the juvenile justice system.

Duane “Tiger” Jones launched the Oroville Boxing Club 13 years ago to teach discipline and self-respect to youth. He thinks white educators don’t understand black culture and can misinterpret strong opinions or loud banter as aggression.

“I think that’s what’s wrong with our society up this way,” he said. “They need to be trained to understand us.”

Cowan, Destiney’s mom, agrees. An early entry in her foster daughter’s disciplinary record notes that she received a warning, for “using a loud voice in and out of class. She also stomps when she walks across the classroom.”

“It was almost like to them her presence is a nuisance,” Cowan said. “What do you mean she’s loud? Black women are loud.”

Top 10 California school districts with the most suspensions per 100 students

This data is based on the total number of suspensions, including multiple suspensions of a student.

DistrictCountyCategoryTotal EnrollmentTotal SuspensionsSuspensions per 100 Students
Loleta Union ElementaryHumboldtRural11711094.02
Fortuna Union HighHumboldtTown113736532.10
Oroville Union HighButteTown235475532.07
South Monterey County Joint Union HighMontereyTown248674429.93
Klamath-Trinity Joint UnifiedHumboldtRural107030128.13
Modoc Joint UnifiedModocTown93726027.75
Oroville City ElementaryButteTown292180327.49
San Antonio Union ElementaryMontereyRural1744727.01
Southern Humboldt Joint UnifiedHumboldtRural84319723.37
Yuba City UnifiedSutterCity14405335823.31

Source: California Department of Education; EdSource analysis by Daniel J. Willis

Meanwhile, Jones’ niece and nephew, whom he’s raised since they were babies, were suspended from Oroville High last year for a fight they say began when a white student taunted Jones’ nephew at a football game for not standing for the national anthem. Jones’ nephew, 16-year-old Isiah Price, admits he was the first to make physical contact, pushing the boy after the game. School officials confirmed the circumstances. Isiah was suspended again later in the year for boxing with a friend off campus at lunch. Leaving campus for lunch is permitted, but bringing boxing gloves to school is not, Williams said. Though the boys were friends and sparring for sport, school officials classified it as a fight because the boys bloodied one another.

Some say a negative school environment is partly to blame.

Destiney said that other students at Ishi Hills have called her “savage.” She told her foster mom that as one of a small number of black students there, she feels “surrounded.”

Martinez, the consultant, said educators need to let kids like Destiney know they’re seen and heard and help them “build that muscle” of self-control. That didn’t happen for Destiney last year. But change may be coming to Ishi Hills.

The Oroville City Elementary School District includes the town’s two middle schools and five traditional elementary schools. Penny Chennell-Carter, who retired as longtime superintendent last June, said the K-3 ban on “willful defiance” triggered an urgent search for alternatives. So two years ago, four elementary schools opted to implement Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. The framework begins by teaching all students positive behavioral expectations and rewarding them consistently for meeting those. More personalized interventions follow for those kids who fail to respond.

Last year, Wyendotte Elementary added “The Dot Spot,” a quiet place at school where students can go to practice mindful breathing and engage in calming sensory activities. This past fall, the remaining elementary school and both middle schools also rolled out PBIS. Central Middle School Principal Mikeial Williamson said he’s replaced retiring teachers with candidates steeped in a mindset sensitive to student trauma and focused on building “a positive culture” at school. The shift is already paying off.

When a student last year yelled at a staff member, kicked a chair and pushed a desk against a wall — each an incident that Williamson said would have previously led to suspension — the school contacted the family and learned his dad had received a cancer diagnosis.

“Instead of just saying, ‘You did x behavior and now you’re out of here,’ it’s more like, ‘Let’s put that aside,’” Williamson said. “The important thing is what’s going on inside you.”

Renzullo, the Ishi Hills Middle School principal, said he’s hopeful that PBIS data on what is driving student behavior will help reduce suspensions. He, Williamson and Oroville High’s Tellechea have been working with Oroville’s African American Family & Cultural Center to forge better ties with families and pair students with mentors. Executive director Bobby Jones Sr. said he’s creating support groups for black students at Las Plumas High and Oroville High — where the assistant principal hired last fall to replace Tellechea is an African-American man.

At Renzullo’s request, Jones plans to soon start working with a handful of Ishi Hills’ African-American students who are struggling with feelings of racial isolation.

“Having solid connections, more contacts, more relationships with some of our community-based groups,” Renzullo said. “For me, you know, that’s free.”

As for Destiney, Cowan said in the fall that she had been getting in trouble a lot. But unlike last year, school officials were “being hyper-sensitive” and “trying everything to not suspend her.” Still, by January they had run out of patience. Destiney, Cowan said, is now facing possible expulsion.

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