In a groundbreaking resolution, the Los Angeles Unified District school board voted Tuesday to ban suspensions for “willful defiance,” making it the first district in the state to do so.
This decision will stop suspensions for a variety of misbehaviors—anything from mouthing off to teachers, eating food in the classroom, or violating the school dress code—which critics have maintained are too broad and arbitrarily enforced. Instead, starting next year, principals will install alternative disciplinary measures while students remain in school.
The ban in LAUSD, the second largest school district in the country, marks a major shift from a zero-tolerance policy for minor infractions.
“We know that taking kids out of school is not an effective solution for dealing with students who have behavioral issues,” said Tonna Onyendu, an organizer with the Liberty Hill Foundation, a nonprofit group that helped craft the proposal for LAUSD. “What’s worse,” he said, “is it leads to racial profiling in the classroom.”
Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education from schools around the nation shows that the zero-tolerance approach to school discipline has a discriminatory effect. African-American students are suspended from school more than three times as often as white students across all grade levels.
In LAUSD, African-American children make up nine percent of the student body, but they account for 26 percent of all suspensions, nearly half of which are for willful defiance offenses.
Seattle and New York City school districts faced civil rights investigations by the U.S. Department of Education for an alarming rise in suspension rates in recent years, particularly among African-American and Latino boys.
New York City saw more than a 130 percent increase in suspensions from the 2002-2003 school year to the 2010-11 school year, when schools came under mayoral control.
By eliminating the willful defiance category, LAUSD expects a drastic cut in suspension rates. That would continue an aggressive campaign by Superintendent John Deasy, who has already slashed the districtwide suspension by two-thirds since taking the helm last year.
But school administrators anticipate several problems with the ban.
Judith Perez, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, said the new rule places an additional burden on overworked school principals, who are the final authority on suspensions.
“The fact is, to have meaningful follow up with students, to have effective intervention support for kids, that requires additional training and support to schools and additional personnel to do it right.”
In other words, that requires money, and the district has yet to outline a budget for the development or implementation of new programs.
Currently in LAUSD, the school personnel-to-students ratio is at an all-time high. Public elementary schools must have more than 1,150 students before an assistant principal is assigned. Ideally, said Perez, there should be one for every 700 students. She calls the counselor ratio “horrendous.” The average high school counselor is responsible for 500 students.
“The district needs to go beyond just saying, ‘You can’t do this anymore.’ Instead, they need to say, ‘Here are new guidelines and here are the resources to enable you to do it.’ ”
The details of the policy shift have yet to be worked out, but the hope with the ban is to keep kids in school and prevent them from heading down the wrong path.
There have been multiple studies done that have found strong links between suspensions rates and poor academic performance, low graduation rates, and run-ins with the criminal justice system. An Indiana University study determined that a school’s “adherence to zero tolerance discipline is second only to poverty as a predictor of students’ poor performance on standardized tests.”
Researchers at the University of Kentucky found that “a history of suspension from school accelerates youths’ progress along a pathway to delinquency and life-long failure.” Additionally, throughout the state, “it is unusual to find a youthful offender among the state’s population of incarcerated youth who has not been suspended from school.”
In an effort to prevent kids from dropping out and ending up behind bars, one East Los Angeles school decided to do away with suspensions altogether. This was in 2009 when test scores at Garfield High School were so low and the dropout rate so high, that the school was on the verge of a district takeover.
“We looked at the data and the studies and we knew this was something that was supposed to work,” said Assistant Principal Rose Ann Ruiz.
It was a huge undertaking for a school with 2,600 students and with no additional funds from the district. Instead, said Ruiz, faculty, students, and community groups signed “Promise Letters” to do whatever was necessary to turn the school around.
That meant working extra long hours. Professional development training took place after school. Weekends were spent creating behavior intervention plans specific to students.
It also meant making a complete cultural shift that started with training teachers to respond differently when confronted with disruptive students in the classroom. Rather than recommend suspension for a student who shows up without a pencil—something that happened often—teachers were trained to find more productive solutions without engaging in a power struggle.
Now, several interventions—including parent conferences, meeting with the school counselor, and even a social-emotional support specialist—take place before a chronically disruptive student lands in front of the dean of discipline.
In the three years following the ban on suspensions at Garfield, API scores went up by 114 points.
“I can’t say it was easy and it took a lot, a lot, a lot, of time,” said Ruiz, “but I can say the results have paid off.”
Related Stories on TakePart: