Tag Archives: school discipline

Let’s Fix School Discipline in California

By Jory Steele

The school-to-prison pipeline is a heartbreaking problem with huge costs to our state. Not only are we paying more in criminal justice costs than it would take to educate every young person, California is losing the creative energy and productivity of too many students — especially students of color.

The legislature is considering taking a huge towards disrupting California’s school-to-prison pipeline. Assembly Bill 420, which requires approval by the Senate and Governor, will provide educators the guidance they need to keep more kids in front of a blackboard instead of behind bars.

California issues too many suspensions and expulsions, sending students on unsupervised vacations rather than keeping students in school and learning. In fact, California public schools suspend almost twice as many students as they graduate each year.

If you think that suspensions and expulsions cannot play a major role in sending kids into the criminal justice system, think again. Just one suspension triples a child’s likelihood of becoming entangled in the juvenile justice system within one year. A single suspension also makes that child five times more likely to drop out of school. The fact is that harsh punishment like suspensions, which are all-too-easily handed out, is often among the first stops along a pipeline to prison and the unrealized potential of our youth.

And the cost to our state is staggering. Incarcerating just one juvenile costs roughly $200,000 more per year than does educating her.

Let’s consider the role that race plays in determining a student’s likelihood of suspension. Young people of color in our state are much more likely to be suspended than white kids for the same behavior. Vague infractions, such as “willful defiance” can include missing a homework assignment or even wearing a hat. In fact, African-American kids are over four times more likely to be suspended than white kids for this largely undefined infraction.

This is California in 2013. It is mind-boggling that the color of a child’s skin can play such a significant role in the treatment they receive in our schools, and ultimately, in setting the course for their future.

There is one important step we can take towards fairness, justice and safety in 2014, though. AB 420 would bar “willful defiance” suspensions in elementary schools. It preserves educators’ ability to suspend older children for “willful defiance,” but only as a last resort, after other alternatives have been utilized.

AB 420 leaves in place 23 other grounds for suspension or expulsion, giving educators the discretion they need to maintain discipline. It places appropriate limits, though, on this subjective and overused ground for suspension that is so disproportionately applied to children of color.

“Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice,” Governor Jerry Brown stated emphatically in his State of the State speech this year. The Governor’s clever turn of phrase depends upon one fact being universally accepted:

Unequal treatment for children in equal situations is also not justice.

Jory Steele is the Education Equity Project Director at the ACLU of Northern California.

Banner Year for School Discipline Legislation Underscores Need for Even More Progress

By Jory Steele, Director, Education Equity Project, ACLU of Northern California

It should come as no surprise to Californians that our public schools are in crisis.  Headlines regularly decry California’s fiscal crisis and its devastating impact on our schools. One issue recently receiving a lot of attention is the shockingly high rates of suspension and expulsion, particularly for students of color, across the state.

Legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown are taking note.  This was a banner year for school discipline legislation. The legislature sent seven bills to Gov. Brown’s desk designed to reduce both the rates of suspension and expulsion and their disparate effects on students of color. We applaud Gov. Brown’s decision to sign five of those bills, which means that more students will stay in school, thereby improving their educational opportunities.

Does suspending students improve their behavior? Far from it. Students who are suspended or expelled even once are five times more likely to drop out, six times more likely to repeat a grade and three times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year than similar students who are not suspended or expelled. Schools with high rates of suspension do not perform well academically, meaning that all students in the school suffer.

According to a recent report, African American boys in Oakland were suspended at six times the rate of white boys last year alone.  An April 2012 report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reveals that in Stockton Unified School District, 38 percent of African American boys, 28 percent of American Indian boys and 19 percent of Latino boys were suspended at least once during the 2009-10 school year.  Last year, one high school in Stockton had a breathtaking 92 percent suspension rate.  Ninety-two percent.

School administrators are concerned about this problem.  A September report by Oakland-based EdSource found that 80 percent of respondents (who were school administrators) are concerned about the disproportionate impact of discipline policies on students of color.

While signing these bills addressing school discipline is significant, it is disappointing that Governor Brown vetoed AB 2242, which would have provided clearer guidelines on disciplining students for “willful defiance.”  Data show that some of the greatest racial disparities in discipline occur when discretionary disciplinary categories such as “willful defiance” are used.  AB 2242 would also have been responsive to the concerns of more than 80 percent of EdSource survey respondents seeking a clearer definition to vague terms such as “willful defiance.”

Though Gov. Brown missed an important opportunity by vetoing the bill, we nonetheless made great progress this year in helping to ensure equal educational opportunity for all students and are girded to continue the fight for further reforms next year.