Banner Year for School Discipline Legislation Underscores Need for Even More Progress
It should come as no surprise to Californians that our public schools are in crisis. Headlines regularly decry California's fiscal crisis and its devastating impact on our schools. One issue recently receiving a lot of attention is the shockingly high rates of suspension and expulsion, particularly for students of color, across the state.
Legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown are taking note. This was a banner year for school discipline legislation. The legislature sent seven bills to Gov. Brown's desk designed to reduce both the rates of suspension and expulsion and their disparate effects on students of color. We applaud Gov. Brown's decision to sign five of those bills, which means that more students will stay in school, thereby improving their educational opportunities.
Does suspending students improve their behavior? Far from it. Students who are suspended or expelled even once are five times more likely to drop out, six times more likely to repeat a grade and three times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year than similar students who are not suspended or expelled. Schools with high rates of suspension do not perform well academically, meaning that all students in the school suffer.
According to a recent report, African American boys in Oakland were suspended at six times the rate of white boys last year alone. An April 2012 report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reveals that in Stockton Unified School District, 38 percent of African American boys, 28 percent of American Indian boys and 19 percent of Latino boys were suspended at least once during the 2009-10 school year. Last year, one high school in Stockton had a breathtaking 92 percent suspension rate. Ninety-two percent.
School administrators are concerned about this problem. A September report by Oakland-based EdSource found that 80 percent of respondents (who were school administrators) are concerned about the disproportionate impact of discipline policies on students of color.
While signing these bills addressing school discipline is significant, it is disappointing that Governor Brown vetoed AB 2242, which would have provided clearer guidelines on disciplining students for "willful defiance." Data show that some of the greatest racial disparities in discipline occur when discretionary disciplinary categories such as "willful defiance" are used. AB 2242 would also have been responsive to the concerns of more than 80 percent of EdSource survey respondents seeking a clearer definition to vague terms such as "willful defiance."
Though Gov. Brown missed an important opportunity by vetoing the bill, we nonetheless made great progress this year in helping to ensure equal educational opportunity for all students and are girded to continue the fight for further reforms next year.
Jory Steele is a staff attorney and Education Equity Project Director with the ACLU of Northern California.