Valley school districts move away from student suspensions, expulsions

The Fresno BeeJanuary 29, 2014 

The number of school suspensions has dipped sharply at several Valley districts, mirroring statewide trends revealed in a new report on school punishment published Wednesday.

The in-depth study by the California Department of Education shows many local schools are keeping kids in the classroom as they find more constructive remedies for bad behavior.

At districts across the Valley, suspensions dropped by more than 16%, with many exceeding the statewide average drop of 14% between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years. Madera Unified cut suspensions by almost 1,000 during those years, reducing overall numbers from 5,368 to 4,015.

Expulsions tumbled too: At Central Unified, for example, the number of kids expelled dropped by 63%, from 122 to 45.

"Instead of parking the ambulance at the bottom of the hill and treating the incident, we're parked at the top to treat what causes it to happen to begin with," said Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg. He said Central's progress results from more staff training and "character" programs for students, which he said help youngsters realize their mistakes early and then correct them. That helps cut down on "repeat offenders," he said.

Madera Unified's expulsions were reduced from 126 to 97, or a 23% drop, and Visalia Unified went from 38 to 33, a 13% drop. The statewide decrease was about 12%.

Some districts, including Clovis and Sanger unifieds, saw slight upticks in expulsions in the years studied. Clovis Unified spokeswoman Kelly Avants explained that "when you expel such a low number in proportion to the number of suspensions, year-to-year dips and rises are to be expected."

Results for Fresno Unified were not included in the state report. District spokeswoman Susan Bedi said technical issues prevented staff from submitting accurate data, which she said would be submitted at a later date. She did not provide any additional details.

However, in-house Fresno Unified reports show the number of suspensions, calculated per 100 students, decreased by 14% between 2011-12 and 2012-13. Expulsions spiraled downward by 20% in those years, district numbers show.

State officials largely attribute the sharp drops statewide to a surge in "restorative justice" and other programs, which typically encourage students to take responsibility for their behavior and find solutions with teachers and their peers.

Locally, organizations like the Youth Leadership Institute advocacy group and Californians for Justice have pushed for those types of reforms. Fresno Unified's school board signed on to some proposed changes last April, pledging to replace harsh punishments with more mediation and counseling.

Rhea Martin, lead organizer for the Fresno chapter of Californians for Justice, a minority advocacy group, called Wednesday's report "positive" and praised the state for analyzing the data based on race and other factors.

But the report wasn't all good news. The numbers show minorities such as blacks and Latinos are still being suspended at disproportionately higher rates compared to white students. Black students represent 6.3% of the state's student population but 16.2% of suspensions. White students make up 25.5% of enrollment but got 20.9% of all suspensions.

"Although fewer students are being removed from the classroom in every demographic across the state," said State Superintendent Tom Torlakson in a statement, "the rates remain troubling and show that educators and school communities have a long road ahead."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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