Bills seek to curb suspensions

The school discipline pendulum is on the move again, swinging from the uncompromising zero tolerance policies enacted in the aftermath of horrific massacres toward efforts to give school officials more discretion.

The state Senate and Assembly education committees yesterday approved half a dozen bills with variations on the common theme of cutting back on expulsions and out-of-school suspensions by implementing programs aimed at reducing disruptive and dangerous behavior.

The shifting legislative momentum follows a series of reports in recent weeks shedding light on the vast number of suspensions, racial disparities in how they’re applied, and their negative impact on students.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg discussing his bill to reduce suspensions. (Source:  Senate website) Click to enlarge.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg discussing his bill to reduce suspensions. (Source: Senate website) Click to enlarge.

During the 2009-10 academic year, there were more than 750,000 suspensions in California schools, according to recently released figures from the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, which we first reported on here. That’s nearly as many as the entire population of San Francisco.

“It does seem like in past generations if a child was suspended from school it was a big deal. You took notice,” said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg at a news conference earlier this week. “And now it is the default for too many schools to suspend a kid just because it’s the easier thing to do than to work with him.”

Suspensions by race and ethnicity. (Source:  The Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

Suspensions by race and ethnicity. (Source: The Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

The most severe punishment is disproportionately meted out by race and ethnicity. Suspended Education in California, an analysis of the federal data released a few days ago by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, found that one out of every five African American students was suspended at least once in 2009-10, compared to one in 14 Latino students and one in 17 white students.

Steinberg’s bill, SB 1235, would require schools with suspensions rates above 25 percent overall or for a specific racial or ethnic group to implement a research-based alternative that holds the student accountable for their misbehavior but keeps them in school. (Click here for a list of all the bills).

“We know what happens,” said Steinberg, “A kid who doesn’t have to be suspended, who is suspended, stays home, falls further behind in school, is unsupervised, has a much greater chance of dropping out, and becomes a statistic.

A sweeping study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center looked at the records of every seventh grade student in Texas in 2000, 2001 and 2002, and found that 31 percent of students who were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grades were held back at least once, compared with 10 percent of all other students, and they were five times as likely to drop out of school.

Relationship between any disciplinary contact and repeating a grade or dropping out. (Source: Council of State Governments). Click to enlarge.

Relationship between any disciplinary contact and repeating a grade or dropping out. (Source: Council of State Governments). Click to enlarge.

Counterpoising those studies is research evaluating a decade of in-school interventions that show the success of programs like Restorative Justice and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) in changing student behavior, teacher contentment and school climate.

After implementing a PBIS program at Pioneer High School in Woodland, principal Kerry Callahan told the Senate Education Committee there was a cultural shift at the school.  She recounted dealing with an out-of-control student who wouldn’t stop cursing at her.  Under the Education Code, Callahan could have suspended the girl; instead, she took her to the front office, calmed her down, and learned that the student’s mother had just abandoned the family.  Rather than sending her home to an emotionally raw environment, Callahan talked to the girl’s father about getting her into counseling, and got her some academic support.

Pioneer High also cut the number of suspension days in half from over 600 to about 300, boosted its Academic Performance Index by 37 points, reduced staff turnover by 50 percent, and improved attendance bringing in nearly $100,000 this year in additional ADA funds.

“We’ve been pushing to have this at every school,” said Laura Faer, the education rights director at Public Counsel Law Center, who has been working on this issue for nearly a decade.  “There is absolutely no excuse for not using alternatives that work for all children.”

Not everyone sees it that way.  Throughout Wednesday’s hearings, two legislative advocates for the Association of California School Administrators played tag team presenting testimony against each of the bills.   Laura Preston said ACSA isn’t opposed to everything in the bills, but is concerned that they may be going too far in the opposite direction.

Under current state law, school principals are required to immediately suspend students, and recommend expulsion, for five actions:

  • Possessing, selling or furnishing a firearm
  • Brandishing a knife at another person
  • Unlawfully selling a controlled substance
  • Committing or attempting to commit a sexual act
  • Possessing an explosive

For other behaviors, notably “willful disobedience,” principals have more discretion. Preston understands the frustration of parents and students when administrators don’t use common sense in those situations and suspend or expel students for talking back to teachers or bringing a butter knife in their lunchbox.

At the same time, the school violence that led to these zero tolerance policies hasn’t disappeared, said Preston, and removing some of that behavior from the mandatory expulsion category could be dangerous.

“Parents expect their children’s schools to be safe,” said Preston.  “There’s an expectation of every parent that when they send their kids to school they’re going to be in a safe environment and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they are.”

Preston is pushing for a conference committee with legislators and all the stakeholders, such as Public Counsel and other organizations actively working on this issue to try to refine and consolidate some of the bills. She said these conference committees were more routine before term limits, and provided everyone with an opportunity for thoughtful conversations.  Hopefully, that process will help them find a balance.

This entry was posted in Data, Dropout prevention, Equity issues and tagged , , , , on by .

About Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

17 thoughts on “Bills seek to curb suspensions

  1. Navigio

    62% of teachers surveyed (recent gates foundation survey) said the behavioral problems are getting worse in their classrooms. The vast majority of teachers with that problem also said they are not getting the resources they need to deal with it (let alone with the other increasing barriers). If Steinberg thinks schools should do more to ‘work with’ students maybe he should think about properly funding them first.
    Racial disproportionality exists in almost every metric possible in public schools at the moment. Perhaps we should try to figure out why that is instead of blindly imposing policies that will only try to cover up that fact.

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  2. Peter

    Steinberg has tried for years, with success only in 2009, to get the few Republican votes needed to raise taxes for the schools.  The fates of the Republican legislators who went along with him that year explains the GOP’s subsequent refusal to agree to any tax increase at all.  Democrats can be properly held accountable for counter-productive extremes of classroom mainstreaming, and grade inflation in the name of self-esteem enhancement; but Republicans, by using their “fiscal responsibility” and “shared sacrifice” canards as excuses for inflating the share of GDP the rich get at the expense of the bottom 90-something percent, have established themselves as supporters of public education in rhetoric alone.  Remember Meg Whitman’s insistence that her proposal to repeal the state capital gains tax would benefit public schools and the acclaim she won from GOP leaders for it.  As a bipartisan consensus of economists modeled her proposal and concluded that it would blow a huge hole in the General Fund, she insisted she had top economists working to show that this was wrong.  To date, these economists have come up with nothing.

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  3. CarolineSF

    If you read up on the research of San Francisco’s Dr. Nadine Burke on the impact of adverse childhood experience on individuals’ health — physical health as well as emotional and behavioral disabilities — it becomes clear that the disproportionate discipline of low-income African-American and Latino students is more complicated than it seems at a superficial glance. That needs to be taken into account throughout the discussion. (If I post a link, I believe my post will be delayed for moderation, so I’ll just suggest Googling Dr Nadine Burke and adverse childhood experiences.)

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  4. Odin501

    They are not actually suggesting an “in-school” suspension. Instead, the legislation being considered would remove a school’s right to remove a defiant/disruptive student from the classroom. My concern is the instructional time being lost by the other students who come to school learn. You are absolutely right to mention the funding needed to promote other interventions. How does this happen in a time that counselors are being laid-off to prevent class sizes from spinning out of control.

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  5. navigio

    And to add another twist to the funding conundrum, one side-effect of such efforts is a direct increase in ADA revenue. Districts are convinced by consultants to implement such ‘programs’ because ‘they pay for themselves’ due to the recouped ADA. However, that does not mean what is actually being implemented is something that will help those kids, though in the ideal situation, both would happen. We need to make sure we implement policy that focuses on improving kids’ educational environment  and opportunity as the first point of order.

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  6. R Roach

    If you click on the  (Click here for a list of all the bills) right below the SB1235 you’ll see that AB2242 States:

    “AB 2242, as amended, Dickinson. Pupils: grounds for suspension and expulsion.  Existing law prohibits the suspension, or recommendation for expulsion, of a pupil from school unless the superintendent or the principal of the school determines that the pupil has committed any of various specified acts. Existing law also authorizes the assignment of a pupil suspended from a school to a supervised suspension classroom under certain conditions.”

    Regardless many of the laws mentioned require a new activitiy or level of service that brings about the question of an unfunded mandate and the potential for a mandated cost claim filing.

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  7. R Roach

    No.  If the Legislature is going to create a new program they should provide funding to pay for the new program. 

    They should follow the CA Constitution:

    ARTICLE XIII B, Section 6
    (a) Whenever the Legislature or any state agency mandates a new program or higher level of service on any local government, the State shall provide a subvention of funds to reimburse that local government for the costs of the program or increased level of service…

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  8. navigio

    Sorry, ADA stands for average daily attendance. Basically a district only gets paid for the students who show up at school. This is why they are so anal about taking and reporting attendance. This is distinguished from enrollment, which means all students who are signed up to attend the school or district.
    As an example, say a district gets $5,000 per ADA per year for a given revenue type. But lets say one student only showed up 90% of the school year. Then simplistically speaking, the district would only get $4,500 for that student for the year. The actual ADA is calculated across all students in the district or school, and even can be calculated slightly differently depending on program, and for some programs the ADA is actually calculated from the previous year. But the basic idea is to pay only for the students who show up.
    One thing to be careful of when people use the term ADA is they often use it to say how much money a district gets per student, and then compare it with another district that gets a lower amount but has different/higher scores. But one district may get money for certain types of programs while another does not, so the amount per ADA spent is not comparable directly unless everything else is equal.
    Another quick example: say I have one district who has 25% special ed kids and gets $2,500 extra per kid for providing that service. That would work out to an average of $625 extra per kid. So district A might get $5,625 for a full ADA, while district B might only get $5,000 per full ADA.
    In general, $/ADA includes all revenues, so a district like LAUSD gets around $10,000/kid/year, while the average district only gets something like $8,500/kid/year.
    This is a nice website for poking around and looking at numbers for different districts:

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  9. Paul

    I agree with Odin501.
    I am much more concerned about the majority (a declining majority, but still a majority) of students who (a) want to learn and (b) already have the academic and social skills to do so in a California public school classroom (30+ students; mixed academic performance levels; inclusion of most special education students; inclusion of most English Learners; social promotion; one-size-fits-all, academically-oriented program on paper — algebra for all, etc.). In light the constraints that I have just listed, a mechanism for removing students who misbehave is critical.
    Not much can be done for students who misbehave. Interventions typically involve patting students on the back, excusing their misbehavior, giving the students a chance to bond with administrators (who have not served in classrooms in years and thus relish the contact, even though a friendship-based approach undermines an administrator’s authority), and rewarding the students (I have seen field trips, prizes, and food handed out to students because the students were badly-behaved).
    Further erosion of disciplinary authority will drive more families away from the public schools, reducing ADA funding as well as political support.
    On a separate note, the implication that suspension causes academic failure is not necessarily true. Could it be that bad behavior causes academic failure, and that both of these correlate with suspension? The implication that students of color are punished more severely is not necessarily true, either. Could it be that they misbehave more? Could it be that cultural norms in some communities (vis-à-vis voice levels, markers of social status, modes of physical expression, acceptability of back-talk, use of foul language, use of verbal put-downs, etc.) are different from the cultural norms formerly prevalent (and now, paradoxically, necessary, due to rising class sizes, rising academic demands, and rising heterogeneity) in public schools?
    Discipline is lax in the public schools, and reducing suspension authority can only make matters worse.

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  10. Laura Faer

    To Navigio — You’re right that we need “policy that focuses on improving kids’ educational environment  and opportunity as the first point of order.” The new California legislation does exactly that. The bills address some of the worst failures of harsh discipline rules: SB 1235 challenges schools that suspend more than 25% of their students to take an evidence-based approach that lowers the number of children removed from school, but also improves school climate, academic achievement and attendance overall and makes teachers happier because school is more structured, less chaotic, and more students can learn.  Other bills like AB 2241 make sure social workers and court-appointed attorneys know when youth in their care face expulsions from school so they can help bring in services and supports and work with the school to address the problematic behaviors that too often stem from the violence and abuse they have faced at the hands of adults. You can visit http://www.FixSchoolDiscipline to read more facts about the bills.

    As someone who has been working to balance the concerns of law enforcement leaders, judges, educators, and students and parents affected by high suspension rates, I want to clarify two important things: First, none of the bills limit teachers’ ability to control classroom behavior or remove a student who is making it impossible for others to learn. A  lot of the comments mention AB 2242, which changes rules that lead to students being suspended out of school over failure to turn in homework or disrupting class. It leaves in place full teacher discretion to remove a student from class if they can’t make it work, but it keeps kids in school where they are safer, less likely to be victimized, and more likely to get support and continue moving toward education success instead of dropout.  What we know from studies is that a student who has been given even one out of school suspension, even when controlling for other factors, is 5 times more likely to drop out and three times more likely to be in the juvenile justice system.  Sending children out of school, often to an unsupervised vacation, for minor issues is just another way to put children further behind and there is no evidence that such out of school suspension actually improves their behavior when they return. To the contrary, the evidence shows that such an approach often exacerbates the problem as children feel more alienated and don’t get the tools they need to do better.
    Second, these are not “unfunded mandates,” as one commenter suggests. Most suspensions are discretionary and in fact more than 40% of suspensions in the state are given out under one category – “disruption/willful defiance.”  Schools do not have to suspend the children and, in fact, under current law, they are required to use other means of correction first and use suspension as a last resort.  So, those school districts that have high rates of suspension can take positive steps to stop those activities at any time.  The proposed changes in the law to make it easier for schools to reduce suspensions and ensure that California is using evidence-based practices around discipline and not encouraging failed approaches that disproportionately harm students of color and students with disabilities and increase our achievement gap. Schools already have the power to change their discipline rules, and many have with minimal costs. Pioneer High School in Woodland, California, is one example. Parents and educators wanted to reduce out-of-school suspensions because they saw the harm it was doing to children and to the school environment as a whole. When they introduced positive behavior interventions and supports three years ago they were pleased by the results in the classroom: a 65% reduction in suspensions, a 48-point gain in the school’s academic performance index in 2010-2011, and a $97,200 annual cost savings as attendance grew. To obtain these results, Pioneer High used $30,000 in 2009-10 and $40,000 in 2010-11. Because Pioneer High has now built capacity among its existing staff, it anticipates no additional expenditures during the 2011-12 school year or in the future. Schools have budgets for school safety and violence prevention, using that money on whole school approaches that are evidenced-based and serve all children is the right way to address discipline problems.

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  11. navigio

    Hi Laura, thank you for the clarification. I dont necessarily disagree with anything you say. I did say ideally both would happen. My point was that theory is different than implementation and people need to beware of that, especially given the attraction of increased funding. Lets just say I am familiar with ‘research based approaches’ for these things where the people being trained in it had a problem seeing the value of how it was being implemented. Thats a problem when it happens (and of course, ideally it would not happen).
    Also, Pioneer is an interesting case. I hope you dont mind me asking you some questions about it. While it’s true that ADA revenue is up, it looks like its more due to a huge drop in truancy than a change in suspensions. Oddly, their truancy rate only dropped in the 10-11 year (to 17%), in all years prior it was near 50% (with the exception of one very low year–22% in 06-07, perhaps a reporting anomaly; and an extremely high value of over 70% the year before that). In fact, suspensions for defiance are up the past 3 years of reporting. And while its true they are down from a spike in 07-08, they are still higher than the two years before that. Was intervention a result of something extreme that happened only in 07-08? Oddly enough, what ever happened that year does not seem to be reflected in the API, which stayed flat during that time.
    Expulsions are also up from 0 in 05-06 to 18 in 10-11, though so are violence/drug related suspensions, so maybe this is a reflection of trying to focus less on defiance?
    The other thing that is interesting is the API. It has been dropping ever so slightly every year from 05-06 to 09-10, then in 10-11, there is a huge jump in all subgroups.  Do you have an explanation for why the impact on API was only in this most recent year and not in any of the years before that?  I do think its notable that truancy was down huge that year, so perhaps this was simply a function of kids wanting to show up for school? Obviously that would be a good thing if it were what explained that.

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  12. R Roach

    Laura Faer – Regarding the “unfunded mandate”. 

    As I mentioned eariler AB2242 (which is now law) mandates a “in school suspension” under the supervision of a certificated employee. 

    At the School District I work at if a substitute teacher were to “supervise” the cost would be roughly $160 a day (salary and benefit cost).  Now apply that cost across the state at all 1,100 school districts for a state wide cost… 

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  13. Pingback: Trends in California ed bills | Thoughts on Public Education

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