Ed. Note: Every year some 400,000 students in California are suspended, while another 18,000 are expelled. The overwhelming majority, in both cases, are black and Latino students, most of who experience long-term repercussions in their academic performance. EdSource Executive Director Louis Freedberg says school discipline policies that are often vague leave the door wide open to such high numbers, and that a renewed approach to school discipline could help address the issue. EdSource recently released its statewide survey of 315 school districts across California. Freedberg shared some of the highlights of that study with New America Media education reporter Vivian Po.
New America Media: What surprised you about the survey?
Louis Freedberg: One of the things we found was that discipline issues tended to be among the main concerns with school officials. Two-thirds expressed concern about the disproportionate impact of school discipline policy on students of color. It has been an issue of concern among civil rights and school advocacy groups, [with] legislation now pending on the governor’s desk.
NAM: What explains the high number of suspensions and expulsions?
Freedberg: The largest category of suspensions is for something called the “disruption of school activities” and “willful defiance of school authorities.” Over 40 percent of suspensions are for these … very vague and undefined categories. We asked school officials if they have a clear definition of “disruption” and “willful defiance,” and 70 percent said they did not … It’s possible that [with a clear definition of these categories] one could then reduce the number of students who are suspended, and thus have an impact on suspensions across the broad.
NAM: How are communities responding to this issue?
Freedberg: We asked school officials to what extent they rely on community resources, and what we found was only 25 percent of school districts -- one in four -- said they often rely on services from outside school to address student behavioral and disciplinary problems. We then asked how adequate these resources were in helping students with behavioral problems. Less than one in ten districts said these community resources were very adequate ...
We are at a moment in time when schools are struggling and community groups are struggling, and of course students themselves and their families are under more pressure as a result of the economic crisis. You will see a link between the stress families are under and how kids behave in schools. It is a time when students need more help and schools themselves say they need more help ... [but] those services are being cut back.
The other thing we found is that about 10 percent of school districts have a police department on their campuses, and two–thirds have school resource officers. [These officers] are not responsible to the school district but to the local police department, so concerns have been raised [about] students being arrested and sent to juvenile hall or jail, instead of figuring out some other ways to deal with their behavior.
NAM: California’s public schools have experienced severe budget cuts in recent years. How has this impacted the enforcement of discipline policies?
Freedberg: Schools that have seen deeper cuts have also seen more suspensions. One can infer it is because of the reduced personnel and fewer resources [at these schools] to help students who may be acting out. When asked what they would do given the resources, 68 percent said they would want to see more counseling and support services for students. The next priority was for more training of school staff, followed by expanding conflict resolution programs on campuses and more wrap-around community based services. Increasing security staff and other security measures were rated lower.
NAM: What are some alternative approaches to reducing suspension and expulsion rates?
Freedberg: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is by far one of the biggest. Other approaches include using student courts, peer mediation, and restorative justice. There maybe two dozens other programs not necessarily well known that are in place in various districts around the state. The encouraging thing is many districts have alternative strategies, which suggest they are really trying to figure out alternatives instead of pushing students out of school. On the other hand, we don’t really know how effective these programs are. One of the pieces of legislation being considered would encourage school districts to form regional forums to come together to share information about what is working and what is not working.
NAM: How can parents get involved?
Freedberg: A lot of student behavior is rooted in issues or pressures a student may be experiencing outside of the school, so parents are key. We did ask school districts if they are offering behavior management classes for parents. Four out of ten said they were, [though] the majority are not. If parents feel they need help in dealing with behavior or discipline issues at home, they should talk to their school districts to see if there are ways they can help.
NAM: What’s the next step?
Freedberg: We are hoping to form a taskforce of school officials because clearly, if any changes are going to happen, that’s where they will start. Ultimately, it comes down to what happens at school sites, [and] school officials are key. We have to acknowledge that sometimes there are very serious behaviors that require responses from school districts but we want to put together a taskforce of school officials across the state to try to identify what are some of the practical solutions and share their experience. We also want to raise awareness among students and parents about alternative approaches and what their rights are. We will put together a parent guidebook because the laws around school discipline in California are quite complicated and not very clear, so being informed is important for both students and parents.
EdSource is a nonprofit education research, analysis, and policy organization based in Oakland, California.
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