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Unmasking School Discipline Disparities in California: What the 2019-2020 Data Can Tell Us about Problems and Progress

Authors: Daniel J. Losen, Shuchi Goyal, Mahreen Alam, and Rogelio Salazar
Date Published: December 31, 2020

Limited data collection and analysis during the 2019-2020 pandemic-shortened school year masked the fact that many school districts in California were on course for substantially higher rates of school suspension and larger racial disparities among those suspended, had in-person education continued for the full year.
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Purpose of the Report

We hope this report will help to renew attention to the problem of excessive discipline. In keeping with this aim, we compare the projected full-year suspension rate for 2019-2020 to rates from prior years. We provide these projected suspension rates for the overall student population in California, and for every racial/ethnic subgroup at the state and district levels.9 We encourage education policymakers at the state and district levels to use the projections we provide in this report to distinguish districts that were on the path toward lower suspension rates from those on a path toward an increase or that showed no change.

If the evidence suggests that the resources dedicated to improving school climate and reducing the use of suspensions were insufficient to generate real progress pre-pandemic, then districts may need to consider alternate or supplemental approaches and policies. Without a sound analysis of the 2019-2020 data, these districts may miss opportunities to address underlying issues affecting school climate and make less than optimal use of the extensive resources provided under the federal American Recovery Act.

The analysis we present in this report is intended to unmask observable unhealthy school climate patterns and to renew the attention given specific districts that suspend students frequently and have large discipline disparities. We also look closely at districts that do not appear to be engaged effectively in reform efforts but were able to escape scrutiny when discipline accountability was put on hold.10 Our analysis may also reveal that districts that were making strong progress pre-pandemic might overlook effective changes attributable to their reform efforts because of the uncertain outcome data.

Suspension rates are just one indicator of school climate in statewide accountability systems, and even though the official state accountability system was not in use for good reasons, it remains important for educators and community members at both the state and local level to understand whether the school climate was improving, declining, or staying about the same as in 2018-2019, when schools were last fully open for a full year. CCRR encouraged California to report the discipline data collected for 2019-2020 because, even if there was no formal state accountability, the data provide a great amount of useful information. For example, we found in a few school districts that the number of suspensions in just 70% of the 2019-2020 school year was already higher than for the entire prior year! While the main text of this report highlights the projected values for the state and for each district, we consistently show the rates both with and without our full-year projections.

In Part I, CCRR uses statewide data published on the CDE website to project values for California, including both rates of suspension and corresponding estimates of the days of lost instruction due to suspensions. We compare the statewide projected rates of suspension for each racial/ethnic group, and the corresponding estimates of rates of lost instruction from 2019-2020, to the observed rates in prior years. We argue that the latter metric, the rate of lost instruction, is important to consider because it shows the impact disparate discipline rates have on educational opportunity over time. Readers also will find the state and district suspensions rates calculated through mid-March of 2019-2020, so they can see the difference between our projected rates and the rates based on the raw, non-prorated data. In Part I we also provide projected statewide suspension rates for foster youth, homeless youth, and socioeconomically disadvantaged youth for selected racial groups. We do this to raise awareness of the increasing disparities and the huge impact this has on students of color who also belong to these higher-needs categories.

In Part II, we examine the most recent disparities in rates of suspension at the district level, also disaggregated by race and ethnicity.11 As in our prior reports, we feature districts that tend to have the highest suspension rates. However, along with this report we are providing a spreadsheet of all the disaggregated data on every California district. We begin Part II with a summary of how many districts showed decreasing rates of suspension, based on the projected values, and note stark differences in district-level progress for the selected racial groups. We also feature the trends found in large districts that had the highest suspension rates in 2019-2020. Unfortunately, providing district-level breakdowns by race/ethnicity for the higher need student groups—foster youth, homeless youth, and students with disabilities—is beyond the scope of the district-level section of this report.

In the discussion section, we explore recent research on the related concerns of school policing and higher suspension rates. We note that some districts may have inappropriately diverted their Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) funds specifically earmarked to support high-needs students to increase the presence of school police on campus. Based on observations of projected discipline rates and the need to improve school climate, we conclude this report with our recommendations for revising the state’s accountability system and for improving the monitoring of and responses to racial disparities in the disciplinary removal of students from school. In our concluding recommendations for policymakers at the state and local levels, we include specific ideas on how to improve data collection and public reporting to ensure greater accountability and oversight.

 

This report can also be found on escholarship at: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/8kr718bx?

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