Closing the School Discipline Gap in California: Signs of Progress
Consensus is growing among researchers and school administrators across America that many public schools suspend too many children. They believe the high number of suspensions is causing students to lose class time, and that alternative punishments might reduce the associated risk for dropping out and becoming involved in the juvenile justice system. On the other hand, some parents and educators have expressed concern that the educational environment will suffer if schools reduce their use of suspension. Many may not be aware of the alternative options, while others may prefer the conventional wisdom that we must “kick out the bad kids so the good kids can learn.” Moreover, even when educators and community groups change codes of conduct and target resources toward new approaches and interventions, those who resist change can slow the implementation of discipline reform efforts at the district level.
Despite such concerns, California’s legislators have put the state among those at the forefront of discipline reform. The local efforts of members of many school communities in districts across the state not only inspired the state to act but also contributed to the patterns this report documents. Most important, according to the most recent data available from the California Department of Education, there has been a consistent decline totaling over 200,000 fewer suspensions in 2013-2014 than two years ago. Further, more than half of that decline happened since 2012-13! When adjusted for enrollment, the rate of suspensions per enrolled students have declined as well, specifically, from 11.4 to 8.1 per 100 students enrolled over the three year period. Moreover, 77% of this reduction in total suspensions is attributable to fewer suspensions in the category of disruption or willful defiance (disruption/defiance). The reductions also narrowed the racial discipline gap in California. However, suspension rates are still very high, and the discipline gap between Black and White students alarming, with Blacks experiencing 19 more suspensions than Whites per every 100 students enrolled.
Some readers may think curtailing suspensions would have a negative impact, but this report starts and ends with examples that counter the assumption that frequent suspensions are necessary to protect the learning environment. Specifically, the introductory statewide analysis shows that, in California, lower district suspension rates are correlated with higher district achievement. The analysis used discipline data from every district that reported data in both 2011-12 and 2012-13. The inverse relationship between suspensions and achievement held true each year for every racial/ethnic subgroup, and especially for Black students.
We caution against overstating these findings and remind readers that the evidence is not proof of causation. The study describes the relationship between suspensions and achievement scores in California without controlling for other factors that might affect it. On the other hand, the findings do shed doubt on the assumption that rising test scores and decreasing suspension rates are mutually exclusive. It may well be that both declining use of suspension and rising academic success are two indicators of districts with strong leadership, vision, and community involvement. Our report concludes with a brief review of discipline reform efforts at two unified school districts, Alameda and Berkeley. Although leaders from the two districts acknowledge that they have much more work to do to meet their equity goals, both districts have successfully reduced suspension rates while improving test scores. Moreover, the racial gaps in both discipline and achievement narrowed in each district. And, finally, efforts in each district to improve school climate and learning conditions included expanding the use of suspension alternatives.
Along with these signs of progress, this report highlights districts that still have suspension rates so high they are hard to believe. Large and disturbing racial and ethnic gaps, especially for Black and American Indian students remain. This report provides a comprehensive district-by-district analysis of the most current discipline rates and the three-year trends, disaggregated by race/ethnicity and by reason for suspension (i.e., the offense category). Readers can find their district’s data in the companion spreadsheet and make comparisons to other districts in the state.
We believe this descriptive report demonstrates that California still has excessive and disparate suspension, while at the same time it provides sound examples of how substantial progress can be achieved at the state and district levels in just a few years’ time.
Our core findings include the following:
State level. The number of suspensions declined from 709,580 total suspensions in 2011-12 to 503,101 in 2013-14. The rate of suspensions in California’s public schools declined over these three years from 11.4 per 100 students enrolled in 2011-12 to 8.1 per 100 students enrolled in 2013-14. This rate reduction represents 206,479 fewer suspensions, which means that far fewer students will incur the added risk for dropping out and juvenile justice involvement associated with suspension from school.
- Each racial/ethnic group experienced a decline in suspension rates, and the most frequently suspended group, Black students, experienced the largest decline, from 33 to 25.6 per 100 enrolled. This means that the racial discipline gap between Black and White students in California, albeit still quite large, did narrow from 24.2 to 19.1 more suspensions per 100 enrolled.
- Reducing total suspensions for the category of disruption/defiance constituted 77% of the total decline in suspension rates statewide.
- During this same period, the use of out-of-school suspension to address minor offenses in the category of disruption/defiance declined from 3.4 per 100 students enrolled to 1.8 per 100. Outof-school suspensions for the most serious offenses also declined in that period, from 1.8 to 1.5 per 100 students enrolled.
- For the most recent year, 2013-14, Black students experienced 7.2 more total suspensions per 100 students than Whites for the disruption/defiance category, but just 2.9 more for the most serious offense (i.e., less subjective) categories.
- California collects data on students with disabilities, but the state is out of compliance with federal requirements that these numbers be reported to the public.
- A federal data source shows that schools in California remove children with disabilities on disciplinary grounds more than any other group, and that Black students with disabilities experienced 40 disciplinary removals per 100 enrolled in 2012-13.
District level. A review of out-of-school suspension rates for each district revealed rates for some districts that were alarmingly higher than the statewide average of 6.3 suspensions per 100 students enrolled. The five highest-suspending general education districts each meted out at least 30 suspensions per 100 students enrolled. They are: (1) Mojave Unified, (2) Fortuna Union High, (3) Oroville Union High, (4) Sonora Union High, and (5) Oroville City Elementary. Several county education office districts were higher still.
- Schools in the Dos Palo Oro Loma Joint Unified District had the highest suspension rate for Black students, 74 per 100 enrolled.
- Thermalito Union Elementary had the highest suspension rate for Whites, nearly 40 per 100.
- Sonora Union High had the highest rate for Latino students, nearly 62 suspensions per 100.
- Oroville Union High had the highest rate for American Indian students, 56 per 100.
- Among the districts with very high suspension rates and very large racial disparities, suspension for disruption/defiance often made up a large share of the districts’ total suspensions.
- Many of California’s districts have reduced out-of-school suspensions considerably in just three years. Of the districts with at least 10,000 students, the following five topped the list of those with the largest reductions for 2013-14, each with a decline of at least 10 suspensions per 100 students since 2011-12:
- West Contra Costa Unified
- Bakersfield City
- Vallejo City Unified
- Central Unified
- Santa Rosa High
- Provide support for restorative practices and for teacher training focused on improving student engagement, and more support in general for teachers and leaders to improve school climate.
- Expand efforts to reduce suspensions at the state and district levels, and monitor disaggregated discipline data by race, gender, and disability status.
- Reinforce changes to school codes with resources that will provide appropriate support for educators and for implementation with integrity.
- Eliminate suspensions for minor offenses such as disruption/defiance for all grades.
- Make reducing exclusionary discipline one of the core indicators of a healthy school environment.
- Include goals for reducing disciplinary exclusion in state and local standards for accountability plans.
- Invest in research to identify more precisely what works to both lower rates and close the discipline gaps by race, disability, and gender. Include in such research an exploration of the relationship between suspension rates and corresponding academic outcomes, such as core subject-matter proficiency and graduation rates.
- Increase the collection of discipline data and reporting by grade level and across subgroups, such as race with gender, and pilot the collection of data on LGTBQ youth.
- Comply with federal law that requires states to report to the public annually on the school discipline of students with disabilities, broken down by race and disability category.