The Movement to Keep Young People in School and Out of Prison
by Diane Lefer
The problem isn’t a secret: California schools suspend more students than they graduate, tracking them to jail instead of to success. But Ramiro Rubalcaba was surprised when he found himself being part of the solution.
Rubalcaba told his story at a forum on school discipline held in Los Angeles on September 10, sponsored by the California Endowment, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torkalson, and the Office of Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Two years ago, when Rubalcaba was assistant vice principal at Garfield High School, the school was suspending 600 students a year and was challenged to bring those numbers down. He didn’t see how it would be possible to do so and still maintain order on a campus unfortunately known for violence, gangs, and drugs. After all, the approach throughout the US has long been to get unruly kids out of the classroom so that teachers can teach.
“We were forced into these meetings,” Rubalcaba said, but “OK, we’ll comply.” This meant professional development for faculty and staff; meetings with students, parents, faculty, and law enforcement. One of those law enforcement sessions spun his head around as he watched a video interview and heard the words of a boy who’d killed his parents and then taken a gun for an attack on his school: I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.
Rubalcaba was convinced the school culture had to change. Disruptive students couldn’t be made to feel that everyone would be better off without them. All students and their parents had to feel welcome and wanted in an environment where every effort would be made to keep kids in school instead of pushing them out.
It should seem obvious: when kids miss days of school for suspensions and court dates, they fall behind. When they fall behind, they are bored and frustrated in class and more likely to get in more trouble and be punished with more suspensions or to drop out altogether.
“We took suspension off the table,” Rubalcaba said. He then led efforts to implement a program of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. Together, the entire school community worked on a document setting out expectations about behavior and the consequences of violations. The students themselves told the administration where on campus fights were most likely to break out and which sites most needed adult supervision. Instead of kicking a kid out of school for an offense, the violation is now seen as an opportunity for the young person to learn from his or her mistake — and for faculty and administration to learn more about the young person and the roots of the inappropriate behavior.
Garfield suspensions went down from 600/year to a single suspension from 2010-2011. (That one case was mandatory under the state education code because the student had carried a box cutter to school.) Keeping all those presumed troublemakers in class didn’t lead to disruption. Instead, achievement test scores went up.
Garfield’s success led to media attention and the doubters (“haters,” in Rubalcaba’s word) came to campus expecting to find fudged statistics and a troubled campus. “Those haters became believers.”
Overall, according to school board president Monica Garcia, the Los Angeles Unified School District has cut suspension rates in half, in part thanks to a new policy that was adopted after tireless advocacy by community groups: students are no longer cited for truancy when they are en route to school or arriving just after the bell.
That’s the good news.
Not good enough. “Thank you,” Garcia told the young people and community advocates in the audience, “for not being satisfied with our current status quo.”
The reality remains that 18,000 students are expelled from school each year in California and more than 700,000 suspensions are reported.
As LAUSD Superintendant John Deasy has acknowledged, “Multiple suspensions basically signal, Don’t come here anymore.”
The California Endowment, a health organization, cares about school discipline because suspended students are more likely to drop out and the Endowment sees high school graduation as a “protective health factor.” Going to jail usually leads to negative health.California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has frequently explained that being suspended triples a young person’s likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system within the year.
Brian Nelson, speaking at Monday’s event on behalf of Attorney General Harris explained education is “a powerful tool for reducing violence” as truancy is an “on-ramp to becoming a victim or perpetrator of crime.” Harris recognized the importance of keeping kids in school when she was San Francisco District Attorney and noted that “94% of San Francisco homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school dropouts.”
But in California today, young people are still being arrested and taken from classrooms in handcuffs for nonviolent offenses. Kids entering the juvenile justice system — for offenses as trivial as being tardy — get an inadequate education on the inside and are often denied re-enrollment in the public schools when they come out, leading to a lifetime of anger, frustration, lost opportunity, and an increased likelihood of criminal behavior.
Do we understand that when young people are repeatedly shamed and humiliated, we plant the seeds of aggression?
Forty percent of chronically truant children are in elementary school, losing the basic foundation in reading, arithmetic, and social skills. “We need to target their families,” said Nelson, “not to punish them but to find out what resources the parents need to get the kids to school.” At a time of budget cuts, where will those resources come from?
California still has one of the highest rates of push-out in the nation. Youth of color — especially African American males — receive harsh discipline at a much higher rate than their white peers even when the discipline history and offense are the same. In general, girls receive more lenient treatment than boys, except for African American girls.
“We ought to be outraged as a country,” said Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education. “Discipline sits within a larger context of inequity.” Where you see racial disparities in disciplinary patterns, she said, you also see other problems. The neighborhoods with high harsh discipline rates tend to be low-income with students of color and they also more often fail to offer the courses required for college admission. “Who gives students access early and gives them what they need to succeed?” she asked. “Who has access to gifted and talented programs?” She wasn’t just talking about Advanced Placement courses either. Many schools with a predominantly low-income African American student body fail to offer algebra in 7th and 8th grade. When the courses are offered, “African American students pass at the same rate as anyone else,” she said.
From the statistics collected by the Department, it’s become clear that minor offenses are punished more harshly when the student is black. Along with the numbers, Ali cited examples from around the US: A chronically tardy white student gets a conference at school; a black student tardy for the first time is suspended. Teachers and administrators often try to understand the white students and figure out why the kids are having the problem. With students of color, there’s an immediate jump to punishment. A black youth blurts out a bad word in gym class and is immediately suspended while at the same school, a group of white girls curses at the teacher and disrupts the class. Their parents get a phone call.
Is there an unconscious assumption that black parents wouldn’t care? Edward Madison, a South LA parent leader with the CADRE community organization, told the gathering “Parents — not just kids — are pushed out. Parents and caregivers have the right to participate in their children’s education.” But African American parents who do try to participate in school are told directly it’s their own fault if their kids “act out and don’t succeed.” Feeling unwelcome, they stop participating.
Rob McGowan, CADRE’s associate director of organizing, pointed out that most suspensions in California have nothing to do with drugs or violence. “Willful defiance is largest single reason for suspension”–a term that lends itself to subjective interpretation and bias.
“We want a moratorium on non-serious suspensions,” said Madison. “Replace a life sentence with life lessons.”
CADRE called for access to disciplinary data broken down by race, ethnicity, disability, language, and gender.
Statistics are valuable consciousness-raising tools. “Teachers don’t realize their split-second decisions are leading to discrimination,” said Ali, “until they see the aggregate.”
“You can’t apply a race-neutral solution to a race-based issue,” said Curtiss Sarikey of the Unified School District of Oakland, “a city that has a lot of pain, a lot of hurt, a lot of violence.” He explained that school superintendent Dr. Tony Smith considered specific needs in implementing the Thriving Students Model. For example, Manhood Development Classes designed for young African American men almost eliminated suspensions and absenteeism among those attending and also upped their GPAs.
Although students with disabilities presumably have extra procedural protections, other disturbing data shows they are actually suspended at a higher rate.
And there’s a category that gets overlooked entirely in the statistics.
“As LGBTQ youth are more openly out in the school, increased visibility has meant less safety” said Geoffrey Winder of the Gay Straight Alliance Network. As a result, students may get in trouble for carrying a weapon they believe they need for self-defense. There’s bias on the part of administrators and, too often, gay students who have not come out at home find their parents are notified of their orientation by the school administration, resulting in rejection, violence, kids forced to leave home.
Ali added that LGBTQ students are suspended when administrators see gender nonconformity as willful defiance or disruption.
Brandon Serpas, a youth leader, related his own experience as a bullied gay student. When he was harassed in class, the teacher ignored it. With the school supposedly committed to anti-bullying efforts, he went and talked to the assistant principal. The result: the offending boy was suspended, much to Brandon’s dismay. “Suspension doesn’t help harassment or bullying. It doesn’t address the attitudes.” The boy was back in school three days later, and Brandon had real reason to fear. What he had wanted was a program of restorative justice and a way to teach respect.
Restorative justice asks Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of all the parties? How do all the people affected work together to address needs and repair harm?
Programs based on this model are being used successfully in some California schools. According to MaryJane Skjellerup of the Youth Leadership Institute in the Central Valley, “Students want to be listened to, to tell us why they struggle with behavior problems. Each student has different needs,” she said, but “they all want to succeed.” The discipline model now in place in the Fresno Unified School District allows opportunities for student voices. They have the chance to learn from their mistakes and be held accountable. The focus is on improvement. Students are part of the solution, asked for their input on making a plan to make right what went wrong. The program addresses the needs of victims and also educates community leaders that harsh discipline leads to dropping out.
Administrators throughout California want to do better. On September 10, EdSource, an independent nonprofit research and policy organization, released a survey of school districts covering about 2/3 of all students in the state. The report documents that administrators overwhelmingly want to address discipline by hiring more counselors and support staff rather than by increasing security measures. They recognize and are concerned with the disproportionate effect of harsh discipline on students of color. One in five administrators want more discretion, having regretfully expelled a student because the state education code mandated it when they would have preferred a different approach.
In the 1990s, said Manuel Criollo of the Labor Community Strategy Center, “there was robust funding for police in schools.” Today, how do we fund counselors instead while support services outside of school in the community remain underfunded and inadequate?
Laura Faer, education rights director for Public Counsel Law Center, pointed out that schools receive funding based on the number of students in attendance. Keeping students in class means more resources for the school. In fact, she said, a bill that would have taken suspension off the table completely in California died in the Appropriations Committee on the grounds that more students in school would cost the state more money. (What are our priorities?!)
The audience, including at least 50 young people who attended after school, heard from a number of their peers, including Camerian Ponn. The American-born son of survivors of the genocide in Cambodia, Ponn told of growing up in Long Beach in a community affected by poverty and trauma. His cousin died in his arms, victim to a driveby shooting. His brothers and sisters were all dropouts and told him he would be the same — a prediction that seemed likely to come true when he was kicked out of high school for failing to bring a book to English class one day. Though Ponn was later able to earn the credits he lacked at a summer alternative school and is now in college, he looks back on high school as a place where he felt “unmotivated, unloved, and depressed.”
School is too often “a minefield of laws you can break,” said Criollo.
Schools need to rethink zero-tolerance policies and stop abdicating their responsibility for the young to the police. The criminalization of school-based offenses, usually nonviolent in nature, helps drive the juggernaut of mass incarceration that is crushing low-income communities of color. If we want young people to develop concern for others and values based in respect and fair play, school has to become a model of fairness, caring, and respect. When that happens and schools offer safety, welcome, respect, and nurture, more young people growing up in poverty and in violent environments will find refuge and sustenance inside those doors.
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As part of the movement to reform school discipline, the state legislature has passed seven common sense bills that now sit on Governor Brown’s desk awaiting signature. Brief descriptions follow:
SB 1235: Schools with high suspension rates are encouraged to adopt behavioral strategies and attend one of three annual forums to learn alternative methods.
AB 1729: Strengthens existing law that requires, in most circumstances, that suspension be used only after other means have failed.
AB 1909: When a youth in foster care is pending explusion or harsh discipline, bring to the table the adults responsible for that child’s welfare.
AB 2242: Students cannot be expelled from an entire school district for willful defiance or disruption of school activities.
AB 2537: Provides some discretion for a principal or superintendent not to expel if circumstances don’t warrant it; possession of imitation weapon or over-the-counter or prescription medication will no longer be automatic grounds for expulsion. (Discretion would have prevented a recent insane outcome. A student talked a classmate into handing over a knife, then took the knife to the principal’s office to turn it in and request help for the classmate. After being praised, the good citizen received a mandatory suspension for being in possession of the weapon.)
SB 1088: Prohibits schools from denying enrollment or readmission to a youth who has had contact with the juvenile justice system.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist. Her latest books include The Blessing Next to the Wound, nonfiction co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal, and the crime novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, from Rainstorm Press, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry describes as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Lefer writes for LA Progressive (where this article originally appeared), and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.