700,000 CA school suspensions spark legislative hearing

School BusApril 16, 2013

By Katy Grimes

At the California Democratic Party Convention this past weekend, Democrats killed efforts led by other Democrats to call for much needed public school reforms.

Convention delegates even passed a resolution slamming education reform groups like Students First and Democrats for Education Reform, claiming they are merely front groups for Republicans and Wall Street money.

The stark divide appears to be between supporters of the California teachers’ unions on the one hand; and on the other hand, supporters of school choice and linking teacher evaluations to student performance.

Is education reform possible?

During the 2010-11 school year, more than 720,000 students in California’s public schools were suspended or expelled. In 2009-10, more than 400,000 students in California public schools were suspended at least once.

Are there really that many discipline problems in California’s public schools?

While many different public policy groups have been busy providing research focused on the higher rates of the suspensions and expulsions of minority students, the sheer numbers of suspensions indicate a growing problem, but not necessarily with misbehaving students.

“Too many schools have implemented overly aggressive policies,” Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, said. Dickinson is the chairman of the Assembly select committee which heard testimony from experts last week about what is going on in California schools, and how delinquency prevention can take place.

After the hearing, I asked Dickinson about the suspension problem, and he acknowledged that many teachers aren’t dealing with the problems. He said most are just making the problem student someone else’s problem by suspending them.

But missing from the list of experts and speakers were teachers. Teachers are the front line of defense in dealing with real disciplinary problems, and should have been present at the hearing to discuss why so many students are being suspended.

“Schools need to figure out what is the institutional change they want,” said Lance Izumi, director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute, CalWatchdog.com’s parent think tank. “Are suspensions just the easy way of doing things?”

The current picture

Many of today’s schools sound more like prisons that healthy bastions of educational learning.

Elijah Muhammad, a student at Sacramento City College, told the committee in 2011, while still in high school, that he was falsely charged with assault and put in jail. Once he was cleared of the assault charges, he tried to go back to his high school, but the administration would not let him. He ended up graduating from a continuation high school, and is now a college student.

He said he tried to speak with the administration about his unique situation, but no one would even meet with him. He was treated like a criminal.

Gabriel Browner, a student at Grant Union High School, said that at his high school, the students are targeted by teachers, who suspend the same students over and over. And Browner told of an interesting and vindictive twist: in-school suspensions.

Browner said if a student is disciplined with an in-school suspension, they attend suspension in another room in the school, but are not allowed to make up class work or tests. Students can have up to three in-school suspensions before an out-of-school suspension is issued.

Browner said many of the teachers are vindictive, and the suspensions are bullying tactics. He said teachers abuse “willful defiance,” the catchall behavior label for any disruption in classrooms.

Some experts believe the in-school suspensions were created to save the school funding which is based on Average Daily Attendance per pupilThe schools get the money only if a student attends class.

Zero tolerance is being abused

After the 1999 shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School, many schools adopted policies that required harsh penalties for even minor misconduct. This was done with the hope that schools would somehow become safer.  “Zero tolerance” became the school rallying cry.

The term “willful defiance” is currently under scrutiny, as its vague definition is what has allowed teachers to suspend so many students for any behavior that disrupts class.

Experts argue it is a catchall phrase that needs to be eliminated because of the overuse for even trivial offenses. And many experts say it is disproportionately used against African-American and Latino boys, and harms the students who need most to stay in school.

Dickinson has authored AB 420 to limit the use of willfully defying authorities or disrupting school activities as a reason to suspend or expel students.

Prevention is the key

Rosalinda Hill and Maisie Chin, co-founders of Community Asset Development Re-Defining Education, CADRE, said it took many students and their families speaking up about the suspension policies to bring this problem to a head.

In lieu of holding just parents accountable, CADRE works with and organizes parents to be able to dig in to the obstructions parents find, as well as the often poor treatment of their children.

But what CADRE found is that students aren’t just receiving suspensions, many are “pushed out” of school.

Dickinson asked Chin how the state might pay for the changes. Chin said there is profiting off of the suspensions because of the many programs created.

Chin said educators instead have to stop looking at these issues as programs, and recognize schools have to develop students as human beings, and not just teach to the tests.

Dr. Robert Ross, President of The California Endowment,  a health foundation created “to address the health needs of Californians,” said his organization recently conducted a poll, which found:

* Four in five voters believe that California school discipline policies need changing.

* Californians voice high levels of support for preventive approaches to school discipline, such as teaching character development and conflict resolution from a young age and teaching positive behavior and skills for managing emotions and making better decisions.

* The survey shows 85 percent of respondents said teachers should have more tools to manage discipline in their classroom, with large majorities supporting expanding student access to counseling services, mental health and substance abuse services.

* Voters understand the serious consequences that can occur when children are suspended or expelled from school.

* Students favor counselors over armed guards in schools.

Ross said schools need more mental health care as well as nurses available to students.

The next step

The next hearing held by the Assembly Select Committee needs to have the CTA present.

“The clash over education had been building throughout the three-day convention, underscoring a larger debate taking place in education circles,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “A spokeswoman for StudentsFirst said the party failed over the weekend to discuss any concrete steps to improve education.”

The suspension issue isn’t just a discussion of race; it’s a bigger issue of California public schools adequately educating all of the students in attendance, and not just the compliant ones.

Tags assigned to this article:
EducationKaty GrimesLance IzumiRoger Dickinson

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