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Out of sight, out of mind? 

Schools are questioning use of suspensions and expulsions

In 1983, former Army drill instructor Joe Clark marched into a New Jersey high school with his bullhorn and baseball bat as a new principal with a mission: rid the troubled school of the “leeches and parasites” that ruined education for the rest of the students. The first week he threw out 300 kids who wouldn’t comply with his code of conduct, which banned everything from physical assault and vandalism to tardiness and wearing a hat indoors.

Clark’s version of tough love—so popular in the ’80s and ’90s—is starting to wear thin, however, as mounting evidence documents the unintended consequences of zero tolerance policies.

More than 400,000 California students were suspended last year—some more than once—for a total of 750,000 suspensions, the California Department of Education reports.

Over half of those suspensions were for relatively minor offenses not related to violence or drugs. Mandatory suspensions for drugs or weapons have been employed for violations as small as taking an aspirin or using scissors. Willful defiance of authority—a catch-all charge that could mean nothing more than forgetting to bring a pencil or sleeping in class—accounted for 42 percent of the total.

The significance of that statistic was not lost on California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who warned the state Legislature earlier this year: “I see a looming problem out there. If we aren’t responsible for our youth … if we don’t keep them in school, if we don’t help them become productive citizens, we are paving the way for entry not only into the juvenile justice system, but the adult justice system.”

One Texas study found that students who were suspended or expelled for minor discretionary offenses were three times as likely to have a brush with the law the next year. (And California’s out-of-school suspension rate is two and a half times that of Texas.) So taking kids out of school—where they can get help—is no way to improve safety at school or in the community.

On the contrary, suspending students unnecessarily has a number of negative consequences:

  • Students cannot learn if they’re not in school, so they fall further and further behind in their studies
  • Young people have a tendency to get into mischief when left to their own devices at a time when they need adult supervision most
  • Parents may have to miss work to attend disciplinary conferences and court hearings, costing them earnings they can ill afford to lose
  • Children repeatedly excluded and chastised begin to internalize feelings of worthlessness and display aggressive behavior
  • Young people barred from school are not getting help with the emotional issues that may have caused the misbehavior in the first place
  • Schools lose revenue when students are not in class

School-to-prison pipeline

Most would agree that schools must maintain order if students are to learn, and sometimes it’s necessary to remove those who instigate violence and threaten the safety of others, as the law dictates. Yet the “get tough on crime” rhetoric has failed to prevent a series of shootings in schools, shopping centers and other public places, and has done little to abate arrest and recidivism rates for nuisance offenses.

Boy sent out of classroomResearchers have found no evidence that out-of-school suspension or expulsion improves the school climate. If anything, says the American Psychological Association, removing offenders degrades the learning environment in the entire school.

“It is difficult to argue that disciplinary removals result in improvements to the school learning climate when schools with higher suspension and expulsion rates average lower test scores than do schools with lower suspension and expulsion rates,” wrote UCLA researchers in “Suspended Education in California’s Public Schools.”

Instead, students suspended in sixth grade are more likely to be disciplined by eighth grade—evidence that suspension simply reinforces inappropriate behavior.

“They’re more likely to drop out and enter the criminal justice system once they’ve been suspended. That’s what we call the school-to-prison pipeline,” says David Yusem, manager of the Oakland Unified School District’s program to change the school environment through a strategy called restorative justice.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, a national organization of law enforcement leaders, attorneys and survivors of violence, reports that students disciplined more than 10 times have only a 40 percent chance of graduating from high school. And dropouts are eight times more likely to end up behind bars.

“Do we understand that when young people are repeatedly shamed and humiliated, we plant the seeds of aggression?” Southern California activist Diane Lefer wrote for the L.A. Progressive blog. “If we want young people to develop concern for others and values based in respect and fair play, school has to become a model of fairness, caring, and respect.”

Suspended rights

The sheer number of students being suspended or expelled is bad enough, but there is also clear evidence that the discipline is not even applied equitably. So it’s a civil rights issue as well.

Blacks were suspended about twice as often as whites in the 1970s, but since zero tolerance policies became the norm blacks are suspended three times as often as their white peers and at least twice as often as any other ethnic group.

“The notion that schools should ‘kick out the bad kids so the good kids can learn’ violates a commitment to equal educational opportunity for all students,” wrote Daniel J. Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA in a 2011 report for the National Education Policy Center, “Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, and Racial Justice.”

Losen’s recent report, “Suspended Education in California’s Public Schools,” pegs suspension rates for black students at 17.7 percent—more than twice California’s overall rate at 7.5 percent. Black students were three times more likely to be suspended than whites. The report pairs UCLA’s previous data with statistics from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which also revealed a startling disparity beginning in middle school.

While the average suspension rate for all students was 11.2 percent in the middle schools surveyed in 2006, the survey found that 28.3 percent of black males were suspended that year, and 18 percent of black girls. For whites, the rates were 10 percent for boys and 4 percent for girls.

Students in special education are twice as likely to be suspended, with that risk increasing fourfold for black students, UCLA researchers concluded in a 2012 report, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School.”

Laura Faer, the education rights director with the Public Counsel Law Center, a pro bono firm in Los Angeles, can back up that statistic.

“Our files are filled with students who received an automatic suspension for failing to be prepared for class or getting smart with an administrator, when they were really struggling with a tragedy at home, learning disability or untreated mental illness and calling out for help,” she says.

Indeed, one of the firm’s clients, Anita C., has three sons who have been repeatedly suspended. The youngest, an 8-year-old, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is easily frustrated, which triggered a cycle of yelling, kicking and running out of the classroom. Last year the boy, whom we’ll call Isiah, was suspended or sent home 17 times in a two-month period—seldom making it through an entire day before a classroom aide called Anita to come pick him up.

“He can be obnoxious, so they suspended him. They didn’t know how to deal with that type,” says Anita, adding that the frequent calls interrupting her work ultimately cost her her job.

With Public Counsel’s assistance, Isiah was placed in a nonpublic school specializing in children with severe emotional disturbance, and his behavior quickly settled down.

“We expect, we need and we want help, not just to have them kick our kids out,” Anita says.

There’s gotta be a better way

Are there more productive ways to keep order in schools than kicking out all the scofflaws, thus subverting their education?

The California Endowment, a private health foundation created by Blue Cross of California, has invested $1 million in resources to help school leaders learn about positive disciplinary strategies that can help reduce high suspension rates and keep more kids in school. It’s an unusual initiative for an organization whose core mission is to expand access to quality health care.

“We take a community-focused approach to identifying issues that affect the health and well-being of that community,” says Castle Redmond, a program manager for the Endowment’s schools program. “In 2010, we saw that suspensions and expulsions were having a serious negative impact on the community’s health, with increased violence and incarceration of youth. This was really news to us.”

Several schools in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas were having trouble with bullying and violence on campus, and strict measures to remove the perpetrators were not helping to increase school or community safety, Redmond says. The Endowment felt there had to be a better way—a more positive way—to get kids back on track.

“With suspension, you have to wait for the behavior to happen and then exile the student. And when you bring them back you expect that they’ve somehow changed. But you haven’t dealt with any of the reasons why he behaved the way he did in the first place,” Redmond says.

With positive interventions such as the ones the Endowment is publicizing, students are taught how to behave appropriately and to consider how their victim feels—and offenders get help to deal with the issues that caused them to want to bully others in the first place.

Looking for alternatives

Many districts find ways to keep disciplined students in school using after-school detention, Saturday school, parent conferences, in-school suspension, and alternative programs. But a few California districts have adopted districtwide policies to actually change the culture at their schools.

The Los Angeles Unified School District board adopted a policy of School-Wide Positive Behavior Support in 2007 as the foundation for supporting positive changes in student behavior. First, all students are taught about expectations for appropriate behavior and given strategies to deal with frustration, resolve disputes, and cooperate with others. Second, the system provides stronger support by helping students develop conflict-resolution, social and emotional skills, and by providing mentoring for at-risk students in small group or classroom settings.

Finally, in cases of misconduct intensive intervention is provided, including individualized planning and monitoring to correct the student’s behavior. Violations are seen as an opportunity for the student to restore his or her relationship with others, and for school staff to learn what’s behind the behavior. Garfield High School effectively eliminated suspensions the first year the positive behavioral interventions were implemented.

LAUSD’s policy lists 10 alternatives to suspension, including staff training, modifying the student’s schedule, frequent progress reports, academic tutoring and behavioral counseling, community service, parent supervision at school, social-emotional behavior classes, restitution, and student-identified resolutions.

The U.S. Department of Education recognizes the Positive Behavioral Support approach as the best way for dealing with the challenging behavior displayed by students with disabilities.

“This is a groundbreaking strategy that would move one of the leading school districts in the nation toward implementing the most progressive possible policies in school discipline and violence prevention,” wrote Russell J. Skiba, a zero tolerance expert at Indiana University.

Restorative justice

Pursuing a slightly different philosophy, the Oakland Unified School District launched a restorative justice initiative at one middle school in 2007. Restorative justice is a strategy that aims to create a healthier school environment that can help students learn to cope with negative emotions, build better relationships with others and deal constructively with offenses, including giving them strategies for making amends when they’ve acted inappropriately.

The very first year the approach was used at Cole Middle School, violent fights and expulsions were eliminated and the number of suspensions was reduced by 75 percent. The restorative justice strategy was adopted districtwide in 2010.

“It’s not just about discipline,” says Oakland school board member Jumoke Hodge. “It’s really about changing school climate and changing the relationships between everyone who’s on a school campus.”

Yusem, Oakland’s restorative justice program manager, agrees: “Instead of doing things to students—like suspending them—we work with them to allow them to talk about what happened, to express their own victimization if they’re feeling victimized, talk about what happened from their perspective and then walk them through being accountable for what they’ve done.”

Through a variety of supports and interventions, restorative justice practice brings all involved parties together in a circle to air grievances, discuss an incident’s impact on all of the parties, and to suggest remedies.

“When you’re sitting in that circle,” Yusem explains, “you’re actually learning and practicing social-emotional skills. You are learning patience, you are learning empathy, self-regulation, self-awareness—all those social-emotional core competencies that are so important for us in life just to have a positive, successful relationship with anybody. Restorative justice in a school context really provides that setting and that foundation.”

And because the restorative justice approach also slows down officials’ response to misconduct, they’re often able to uncover the true roots of the behavior. Yusem described a hypothetical scenario where a student wouldn’t respond to a teacher’s request to lift his head up off his desk:

“Maybe Tomas had to take care of his little brother all weekend long because his mom was on drugs, fell off the wagon, which happens to a some of our students. And the father’s not around. Or they didn’t eat all weekend long, and the first food they got was at school. So it’s really hard to focus when you’ve got so much stuff going on in your life. School is like the last thing on your mind.”

Stella Levy, the executive director of the Restorative Schools Vision Project in Sacramento, sees how restorative justice techniques produce similar insights all the time. RSVP is part of the nationwide Dignity in Schools campaign.

She tells of one fourth-grade boy who seemed to be in trouble a lot. He had a short temper, and one day he threw a pencil at his teacher in frustration, who sent him out of class to see Levy.

As Levy listened to the boy’s story, the reasons for his behavior became apparent. His father, just out of prison, had come to see the boy and his mother the night before. As tensions rose, the father began beating the mother; the boy jumped on his back, trying desperately to protect his mother. But he couldn’t stop the beating and had to wait until the man finally left on his own. As he left for school the next morning, the little fellow told Levy, he noticed the blood spattered across the wall and cleaned it up. “I don’t like to see that,” he said matter-of-factly, without tears.

“That changes the whole picture of what he did,” Levy said.

After unloading his emotional baggage, the boy was able to be guided through some empathetic reasoning about how the teacher may have felt when he had a pencil thrown at him and how he could repair the harm he’d caused—the goal of restorative discipline. He readily agreed to write a letter to apologize, which he then delivered to the teacher.

“It was important to him,” Levy said. “It felt like a grown-up thing to do—something someone with dignity does.”

Change starts with the board

In 2011 CSBA published a handbook of strategies to help school boards with the policy questions around creating positive school environments. “Safe Schools: Strategies for Governing Boards to Ensure Student Success” covers suspension policies, readmission, conflict resolution and peer mediation, restorative justice, community service, and other prevention and intervention discipline policies and practices.

“Research shows that schools and districts have the ability to affect their school disciplinary rates, and many are taking steps to improve outcomes for their students,” says Angelo Williams, Ed.D., CSBA assistant executive director for Policy and Programs. “Looking at the problem from a public policy point of view, board members are in a unique position to partner with their neighborhood and city counterparts.”

Oakland board member Hodge agrees that school discipline is an issue of vital civic importance, and she collaborates with city leaders on the district’s initiative.

“If you have dropouts, then you have a high crime rate. You have low employment,” she says. “So from an economic and community development perspective, [our] city council person was very invested in what we could do inside the school site to hold onto the students.”

The culture change starts with the policy questions.

“If there’s obviously a huge problem with push out or those kinds of things, it’s imperative for a board to ask questions,” Hodge says: “Do you want to eliminate the achievement gap? Do you want to eliminate disparity, either across class or across race? It’s hard work, so you’ve got to really be willing to state you’re committed to doing that.”

Like Oakland, the Los Angeles Unified board went on the record earlier this year when it adopted a resolution supporting a variety of strategies to reduce suspensions, including positive behavior intervention, restorative justice, and social-emotional learning.

“Students are pushed out of the school system every day,” said board President Mónica García, one of three sponsors of the resolution. “We need to work with students and families to find solutions that keep students in school.”

In fact, a majority of California school districts are taking another look at their discipline policies with a view toward reducing suspensions and expulsions in favor of more positive measures. According to a recent survey by EdSource, a privately funded organization focusing on key education reform issues in California, schools need more adults—counselors and support staff—to address discipline problems. As expected, state budget cuts are taking a toll on the ability of school staff to respond to misbehavior. A growing number of school districts are recognizing the disproportionate impact of discipline policies on students of color and those with disabilities, and more are beginning to use strategies like positive behavioral support and restorative justice.

Funding to support the initiatives may come from a variety of federal grants, such as School Improvement Grants, Title I and special education funds, Department of Justice grants, county mental health funding, and grants from interested nonprofits like the California Endowment.

Desired outcomes

No matter which approach a district decides to take, there’s no magic bullet for the problem of student misbehavior. And any approach will take time—probably three to five years—to fully acculturate. But it’s worth the effort, says Yusem, the Oakland program director.

“The way I see it is that we don’t really have a choice. We have to implement something that’s going to work, because we’re not just talking about our kids who are in school, but we’re talking about the future of our society.

“I don’t want to be too hyperbolic, but it’s really true,” he says. “We have to look at things differently or we’re going to get the same results we’ve always gotten.”

Kristi Garrett ( is a staff writer for California Schools.

New laws

Alternatives to suspension and expulsion

SB 1088 (Price, D-Los Angeles) prohibits public schools from refusing to enroll or readmit students solely because they had contact with the juvenile justice system.

AB 1729 (Ammiano, D-San Francisco) requires that school administrators try alternative disciplinary practices to correct student misbehavior before resorting to suspension. The law stipulates community service, restorative justice and positive behavior incentives as alternatives.

AB 1909 (Ammiano, D-San Francisco, and Brownley, D-Santa Monica) requires that if a student in foster care is facing suspension or expulsion, the district must contact the student’s attorney and the county child welfare agency and invite them to a meeting where the student’s case would be discussed.

AB 2537 (Peréz, D-Coachella) gives school districts greater discretion to reduce unnecessary expulsions through alternative discipline, and clarifies that a student’s own prescribed medicines or over-the-counter drugs are not controlled substances for mandatory suspension. The law also stipulates that a toy gun or other imitation firearm need not require suspension or expulsion.

AB 2616 (Carter, D-Rialto) calls for schools to address the root causes of truancy and create an attendance plan rather than immediately referring the matter to law enforcement.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a few discipline-related bills passed by the Legislature, not because the intent was bad, but because he prefers to leave certain matters at the discretion of local elected school boards.

—Kristi Garrett

CSBA addresses discipline as a critical education issue

“Discipline is a critical education issue that requires addressing the conditions of children and the achievement gap,” says CSBA Policy and Programs Officer Betsy McNeil, so CSBA is taking a leadership role in supporting member boards and districts as they develop and implement positive school discipline policies and practices that will help all their students stay in school and achieve success.

With funding and support from The California Endowment, CSBA held focus groups at the 2011 Annual Education Conference and Trade Show to discuss barriers and opportunities school board members face as they develop and implement positive school discipline policies and practices. Last May, Castle Redmond from The Endowment was invited to speak to CSBA’s Superintendents Advisory Council, where he heard about the realities on the ground related to school discipline. Following up on those conversations, Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, addressed the Superintendents Advisory Council in October to discuss legislative strategies that could help reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions in California.

In addition to “Safe Schools: Strategies for Governing Boards to Ensure Student Success,” CSBA is currently revising sample board policies and administrative regulations to reflect recent legislation and is developing a policy/governance brief to discuss the issue and highlight actions for governance teams. There is a workshop at CSBA’s 2012 Annual Education Conference discussing positive school discipline, featuring a best practice presentation from San Rafael City School District.

“In the coming year,” says McNeil, “CSBA will continue its efforts to collaborate and build partnerships with key stakeholders to help school districts and their local communities work together to reduce suspensions and expulsions in California, keep kids in school, support teachers and staff and ensure all students succeed.”

—Kristi Garrett

Disciplinary measures

Sources for reports cited in this article, along with other resources that may be of interest to school officials exploring alternatives to suspension and expulsion:


“Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement”; The Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2011

Civil Rights Data Collection; U.S. Department of Education

“One Strike, You’re Out: Has Zero Tolerance Gone Too Far?”; California Schools, Winter 2005 (see “2005 archives” in the left column)

“Reparable Harm: Assessing and Addressing Disparities Faced by Boys and Men of Color in California”; Rand Corp., 2009

“Safe Schools: Strategies for Governing Boards to Ensure Student Success”; California School Boards Association, 2011 (under “In the Spotlight”)

“Understanding School Discipline in California: Perceptions and Practice”; EdSource, 2012

Reports from The Advancement Project & The Civil Rights Project at UCLA:

      • “Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence”; Russell J. Skiba, 2000
      • “Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Policies”; Russell J. Skiba,
        et al., 2000
      • “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School”; Losen, Skiba, Martinez, 2012
      • “The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment”; Russell J. Skiba, 2000

Alternative measures

Oakland Unified School District Restorative Justice Web page

Culture of Discipline policy and “Top Ten Alternatives to Suspension”; Los Angeles Unified School District

Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports; U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs

Fix School Discipline website

—Kristi Garrett