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Disparate Discipline Policies Discussed, Investigated in California

From guest blogger Nirvi Shah:

A new survey of school discipline policies in California finds that districts have a patchwork of approaches to dealing with students who misbehave, administrators are concerned about how to manage students' behavior, and they worry about the disproportionate impact of some discipline policies on black and Latino students.

And while 70 percent of districts reported that they rely on police officers for student monitoring and discipline, they would rather have more counselors, better training of school staff, and rehabilitative services for students who are expelled or suspended.

The survey released this week, from the nonprofit research and policy organization EdSource, included responses from 315 school districts that enroll 4.1 million students, or about two-thirds of all students in California schools.

The survey coincided with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights into whether the Oakland school district disciplines its African-American students more harshly than white students, the Oakland Tribune reported.

The Oakland school board on Wednesday will consider whether to approve a formal resolution with the federal agency that includes a five-year plan that will start work by focusing on 38 of the district's 86 schools, the Tribune reported. The goals include an overall decrease in out-of-school suspensions, and specifically, reductions in the suspensions of African-American and special education students. If the school board approves the resolution, the office for civil rights will end its investigation before concluding whether the district has engaged in discriminatory student discipline practices.

EdSource's survey found that about two-thirds of school officials were concerned about their school discipline policies having a differential impact on students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The survey results came on the same day as a hearing Monday night in Los Angeles sponsored by state chief Tom Torlakson, attorney general Kamala Harris, and the California Endowment to address the high rate of out-of-school suspension in California. (The California Endowment supports Education Week's coverage of school climate and discipline.) Assistant secretary for civil rights Russlynn Ali was one of the speakers.

"We need to hold kids accountable and help them learn from their mistakes, but also keep them in school and on course to graduate," Harris said in a statement. "As a career prosecutor, I know that frequent use of out-of-school suspension for non-violent offenses can set the stage for the type of chronic truancy that leads to students dropping out of school and becoming victims of crime."

Some 80 percent of administrators surveyed said that California's budget crisis has affected their ability to deal with student behavior and discipline. But 80 percent also said they are revising or have revised their school discipline policies within the last five years.

One in five of those surveyed said they have had to expel students as required by state law although they would have preferred a different punishment. A bill awaiting a decision by Gov. Jerry Brown would scale back requirements about when and why students must be suspended or expelled in California.

Other findings:
•California law says that a student can be suspended or expelled if he or she "disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties." During the past school year, some 42 percent of all suspensions in California were attributed to such behavior. However, these terms are largely undefined and open to substantial interpretation by school officials, and 85 percent of administrators told EdSource they want a better definition of these acts.

• Many districts are using formalized alternative approaches to behavior management, with positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, being the most popular. In 38 percent of the responding districts, it's a districtwide policy.

•Most high school suspensions are for three days or longer, and in high schools with the highest suspension rates, a higher proportion of suspensions—19 percent—were for five days, compared with 14 percent at all high schools in the districts in the EdSource sample.

•In-school suspensions are available on most campuses, but they are not the norm, EdSource found. While there is growing recognition that if students are able to serve their suspensions at school, they're less likely to get into additional trouble. These students stay connected to the school environment, and they lower their risk of dropping out. But in elementary grades, administrators in just 26 percent of districts say students serve their suspensions all or most of the time on campuses. That percentage drops to 13 percent in middle and high school.

Library intern Amy Wickner contributed to this report.

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