The Kern High School District expelled Latino students for defiance and disruption in 2014-2015 more than any other district statewide, including school systems with larger enrollments, according to data released this week by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.

The data, part of a statewide report examining suspension records released Tuesday by UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, highlights the most recent disciplinary data available statewide, including numbers from KHSD before it settled a lawsuit alleging it engaged in discriminatory disciplinary practices.

It has since implemented systems changes to address the rates, as negotiated by the terms of a settlement agreement the district entered this year with the Dolores Huerta Foundation, National Brotherhood Association and Faith in the Valley Kern, among other parties to the suit.

In all, KHSD suspended 4,734 students for 16,462 days in 2014-15, meaning each of the suspended students missed roughly 3.5 days of school. Those figures are staggering when placed not only against other Kern County districts — the number of suspensions in the next 13 largest county districts combined don’t equal the KHSD tally — but also statewide.

KHSD handed out 8,231 suspensions, which is more than San Diego Unified, a K-12 district that enrolled almost 130,000 students, and 61 fewer suspensions than Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest school system in the country with more than 645,000 students in 2014-15.

There are no comparably sized high school-only districts — most are unified — but Sweetwater Union High in Chula Vista, which enrolled 41,000 students, had about 3,200 suspensions, and Anaheim Union High, which enrolled almost 32,000 students, had about 2,500 suspensions. Both maintain junior high schools.

KHSD spokeswoman Lisa Krch said the high rates are “not a new concern for educators” and “not just a KHSD issue.”

“Nationally, statewide, and locally public school districts have identified and acknowledged that African American and Latino students may have been suspended or expelled from school at higher rates than other students. However, this data trend is not necessarily a reflection of an intent or desire to discriminate against those students, nor is this data evidence, per se, of intentional race-based discrimination by a school district’s administration, teachers, staff, or governing board,” Krch said.

Dolores Huerta Foundation Education Policy Director Gerald Cantu said that although suspension rates have been declining, the data serves as a reminder that there's much work to be done. DHF is focusing on "ending the pushout of students of color" for National Week of Action, and hosting a press conference Tuesday.  

"The racial inequity still persists and the next step is to address those inequities," Cantu said. 

Suspension rates have dropped 2.4 percent overall since 2014-15, 2.1 percent for Latino students, 3.2 percent for white students and 2.5 percent for black students, district records show.

“It’s important to know progress where it has occurred, but just as important is the need for more state action,” said Dan Losen, one of the researchers who compiled the data and authored the report, “Lost Instruction: The disparate impact of the school discipline gap in California.”

The state education code no longer allows students to be expelled for willful defiance or disruption, but does allow for those students to be suspended for the offense starting in fourth grade. Losen said that needs to change statewide.

“Los Angeles has done it, and San Francisco and Oakland too. If these urban districts can eliminate this, we really need to do it across the state of California,” Losen said, stressing that districts have uniform disciplinary standards statewide.

Losen speculates that districts that retain high suspension rates are among those with zero tolerance policies and have leaders who are more resistant to change.

“Over time, they’ve cultivated teachers who believe this is the way you respond to behaviors,” Losen said. “Then there are districts that have never suspended kids at high rates because they have for a long time never adopted zero tolerance mentalities.”

Mojave Unified School District, a 2,600 student. six-school district, had the highest suspension rate in Kern County, with 41 students per 100 getting suspended in 2014-2015.

The rate was almost twice as high for the district’s 747 black students, 244 of whom were suspended 606 times, meaning those students had a 33 percent chance of being disciplined in such a manner, compared to white students at 12 percent, and Latino students at 10 percent.

Mojave Unified Superintendent Aaron Haughton did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Cantu said that the Kern Education Justice Collaborative has begun working with parents in the Mojave region to address “some of the intolerable suspensions and expulsion rates.”

McFarland Unified School District had a suspension rate among black students of 90 per 100 students — but the district enrolled just 10 black students that year. The high rate is based on five students getting suspended nine times.

McFarland Superintendent Victor Hopper said he was alarmed by the data, especially after digging deeper into the reasons for many suspensions.

“It was more teachers sending kids out for defiance,” Hopper said, adding that the district is shifting toward more in-school suspensions to avoid losing instructional time. He had a parent tell him last year that when his kid was suspended, he would be spending the entire time playing video games.

“It was a reality check for me,” Hopper said. “Losing instructional time isn’t helping the kid, and the other kids aren’t in danger. We should keep them in school.”

The district has since implemented a restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a systems approach that changes the culture and climate of a school, Hopper said.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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