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Districts Re-Evaluate How to Keep Kids in School and Out of Trouble

A recent report seeks to help states and school districts updating their policies to avoid suspending students for bad behavior -- a practice studies show makes them more vulnerable to dropping out and getting in trouble with the law.

Suspensions are a widespread practice in American public schools. The out of school suspension rate nearly doubled in three decades, climbing from 3.7 percent in 1974 to 6.8 percent in 2006, when data were last collected. This model, however, is coming under fire as states and school districts across the nation look to replace it with one that focuses on preventative measures, citing concerns that suspending students causes more harm than good.

The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice released a report this month that argued that schools should replace the out-of-school suspension model with a model that focuses on looking for problematic behaviors and acting to keep students in the classroom, focusing primarily on addressing the underlying issues that cause bad behavior in students rather than punishing the behavior itself.

The bipartisan report combines statistics with perspectives from experts on behavioral health, law enforcement, and education. It offers a comprehensive perspective on the phenomenon that activist organizations have termed the "school-to-prison pipeline," in which a student who gets suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation is three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system, according to data from the ACLU.

The authors of the report tie high suspension rates to other adverse outcomes, including low graduation rates and involvement with the juvenile justice system. In the 2009-2010 school year, 83 percent of white students graduated, compared to 71 percent of Hispanic students, 69 percent of American Indian/Alaskan Native students, and 67 percent of black students.

The CSG Justice Center lays out 60 policy recommendations over eight chapters and hundreds of pages, identifying policies to address nationwide trends of school discipline and suspension. States are already reviewing the report to determine how best to institute the CSG Justice Center's findings in their own education systems. For example, Tennessee is conducting a review of the report's findings to determine how best to merge its recommendations with existing state programs aimed at providing resources for at-risk students, according to Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris.

Students who are black, Latino, Native American, LGBT, disabled, and/or learning English as a second language are suspended at an above-average rate, according to CSG's report. It also found that students who have been suspended are more likely to drop out of high school and become involved with the juvenile justice system. The combination of these factors leads to lower graduation rates among minority groups that, according to the report's authors, are "nothing short of a crisis."

"Kids that aren’t successful in the school system have problems in life with the criminal justice system with a much, much greater frequency." said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, who acted as a consultant for the report. "Look at our prison system: A substantial number of people there were not successful in the education system."

Darla Edwards, a member of the Virginia Board of Education, said she hoped to address what she called the "vicious circle" of zero-tolerance policies. "As a principal, I know that discipline has a huge impact on student achievement," Edwards added. "When students are expelled from school, it’s really difficult for them to make up those learning time they missed."

The Boards of Education in Virginia and Oregon were each awarded $5,000 grants from the National Association of State Boards of Education to pursue reforms in state discipline policy that are punitive and exclusionary. In Oregon, the Board of Education will convene a task force to develop a policy to limit exclusionary policies, while Virginia will identify ways to prevent student absenteeism. National trends also manifest themselves in Virginia, with a 2013 University of Virginia report finding that black males in Virginia are suspended nearly twice as often as their white counterparts.

Cynthia Cave echoed Edwards' sentiment, citing school policies that punish students for absences rather than checking in to understand why they were truant as a potential target for reform. "Early intervention in any kind of absence is necessary," she said. "A positive school environment would track absences at that school and have conversations about what’s contributing to the absences."

Michael Thompson, director of CSG Justice Center, cited California's rules against "willful defiance" as an example of rules that can target certain racial or ethnic groups over others. Section 48900 of the California Education Code states that students can be suspended for having "disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied...valid authority." The California Department of Education reports that student suspensions for willful defiance made up 43 percent of all suspensions statewide in the 2012-2013 school year. African-American students, who make up 6 percent of students statewide, were 19 percent of the willful defiance suspensions.

The San Francisco and Los Angeles Unified School Districts have both struck down their willful defiance rules as grounds for suspension, citing concerns that suspensions under this rule disproportionately affect minority students. Instead, they will implement programs that focus on preventative measures and keeping kids in school, similar to measures that are being taken across the nation.

The authors recommend using existing funds for general operation and professional development, as well as seeking grants from private sources and the U.S. Departments of Justice, Education and Health and Human Services, to implement the reforms.

Thompson drew the distinction between letting bad behavior go unpunished and attempting to address behavioral issues at a base level. "No one’s talking about being more tolerant of misbehavior," he said. "On the contrary, we’re talking about classrooms where everyone wants to learn and everyone’s there who’s supposed to be there. It’s an issue of how to keep all the kids in the classroom."

Norris, the current chairman of CSG, stressed that the reforms suggested in the report can be applied to schools regardless of location or political alliances.

"It’s an issue of productivity rather than partisanship," Norris said.

Daniel Luzer is GOVERNING's news editor.
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