Suspension, Expulsion Rates Fall Sharply in California, But Racial and Ethnic Disparities Remain 

According to state data, African Americans comprise 5.8 percent of total student enrollments, but 15.5 percent of all students suspended.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ALISON YIN OF EDSOURCE
  • Photo by Alison Yin of EdSource

School suspensions and expulsions in California public schools have dropped dramatically among all racial and ethnic groups over the past five years but a significant gap remains for African-American students, according to new state data released this week.

In the 2016-17 school year, the suspension rate of African-American students in California public schools was 9.8 percent. Still, that rate was significantly lower than it was in 2011-12, when it was 13.7 percent. The rate is calculated by dividing the total enrollment of students in a particular subgroup by the number of students suspended in that subgroup.

By contrast, the suspension rate for Latino students was 3.7 percent, 3.2 percent for white students, and 1.1 percent for Asian-American students.

The data, which was released by the California Department of Education, shows a dramatic drop in suspensions and expulsions among all racial and ethnic groups, reflecting a major push by the state along with advocates to encourage schools to find alternative ways of dealing with school discipline and behavior problems.

Suspensions dropped 46 percent — from a cumulative total of 709,702 to 381,845 — between 2011-12 and 2016-17, while expulsions fell 42 percent, from 9,758 to 5,657. Overall, 3.6 percent of California’s students were suspended in 2016-17, down from 3.7 percent two years ago and down from 5.7 percent in 2011-12.

“This new information demonstrates that efforts by educators all over the state to find better ways to engage students in learning and address behavior problems are paying off in the form of greatly reduced suspensions and expulsions, and that translates into more students in class,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. “The bottom line is that students have to be in class to learn, to succeed, to develop their potential, and to fulfill their dreams.”

The data includes information on California’s over 10,000 public schools, including charters.

To get information on suspension and expulsion rates at individual schools, go to this database compiled by EdSource.

Among African-American students, suspensions dropped 49 percent, and expulsions were down by 40 percent. Suspensions for willful defiance — defined by state law as disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of school staff — dropped 79 percent among African-Americans. A 2014 state law prohibits schools from suspending students for willful defiance in the K-3 grades, but several school districts, including Los Angeles Unified and San Francisco Unified, have prohibited its use altogether.

“Generally, the positive trends are continuing and that’s great news,” said Brian Lee, state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a division of Council for a Strong America, a bipartisan nonprofit that advocates for crime reduction policies. “But we’re still seeing significant disparities among racial groups.”

Ruth Cusick, senior staff attorney at Public Counsel, a public interest law firm that works on school discipline issues, described the racial disparities as troubling. According to state data, African Americans comprise 5.8 percent of total student enrollments, but 15.5 percent of all students suspended.

“We know that suspensions for vague education code violations — like disruption and willful defiance — contribute to racial disproportionality,” she said. “These types of suspensions are subjective in nature and can be arbitrarily enforced, and their elimination is an important step towards ensuring that every student in California has a chance to learn, regardless of what they look like or where they live.”

Torlakson attributed the suspension and expulsion declines to a host of state initiatives over the past five years intended to improve school climate and reduce the amount of time students miss school for disciplinary reasons.

Students who are suspended tend to fall behind academically, are less likely to graduate, and are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system, costing California taxpayers billions of dollars in reduced economic productivity and criminal justice and social costs, according to a 2017 report by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Legislators, the California Department of Education, Gov. Jerry Brown, nonprofits, and school district leaders have been trying to address the issue on multiple fronts. According to Torlakson and Lee, the state’s recent efforts to lower school suspension and expulsion have included the following:

- Collecting and publishing detailed data from schools.
- Promoting restorative justice and positive behavior programs as alternative discipline measures. More than $65 million from the Legislature and Proposition 47, a 2014 criminal justice reform law, have gone toward these programs.
- Incorporating social-emotional learning into school curriculum, emphasizing social skills, respect and compassion among students.
- Requiring districts to address suspensions and expulsions in their Local Control Funding Formula, and holding districts accountable by reporting their rates on the California School Dashboard.
- Conducting trainings in restorative justice at districts around the state.
- Banning expulsions and suspensions for willful defiance in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Senate Bill 607, which did not make it through the Legislature this year, would have expanded the ban through 12th grade.

Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, said he was pleased with the new data and that it shows restorative justice practices are working. But not all districts are using these alternative discipline techniques. That could leave teachers having to deal with disruptive students without the support of alternative discipline programs.

“Fewer suspensions and expulsions are always good news. Students can’t learn if they’re not in school,” he said. “When done properly, restorative justice and positive behavioral intervention strategies actually do work. But we need to make sure all districts have the support to offer these programs.”

Restorative justice means that students who’ve committed a campus infraction, such as stealing a classmate’s backpack, meet with the victim and others, such as peers or school staff, to work out a resolution.

According to the California Education Code, students can be suspended for physical assault, bringing weapons on campus, using or selling drugs or alcohol, stealing, bullying, sexual assault, vandalism and other infractions. Minor violations include smoking cigarettes, swearing, and defying a teacher.

According to a survey by the California Teachers Association released in April, nearly 9 out of 10 teachers surveyed said they need more training and the support of school psychologists and counselors if they are to successfully retreat from “zero tolerance” discipline practices, in which even minor infractions may result in a student being suspended for a day or more.

Eighty-six percent of the nearly 3,500 teachers and other school staff who completed a 2016 online survey said they could use additional training in how to reach the students they once may have sent to the office for disciplinary reasons, as well as increased access to school mental health professionals to support students in distress. Forty percent said they had received “little or no training” in alternative discipline approaches, according to the survey, which drew responses from K-12 teachers as well as from school nurses, psychologists and counselors.

Carolyn Jones is a reporter for EdSource, an Oakland-based journalism nonprofit that focuses on education issues. This report was republished here with EdSource’s permission. Louis Freedberg of EdSource also contributed to this report.

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