While suspensions have decreased across the state since 2011 as school districts rework their disciplinary approaches, male black students continue to be suspended and expelled at higher rates than their peers, according to a new analysis published this week by researchers from San Diego State and UCLA.
The suspension rate among black students across California dropped 5 percent between 2011-12 and 2016-17, however black males are still 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than their peers, according to the report, titled, “Get out! The most dangerous learning spaces for black male students in California’s public schools.”
“No other student group experiences this type of disproportionality in discipline,” the report states.
Researchers suggest that, despite strides taken by districts across the state to reduce exclusionary disciplinary practices, many black male students are targets of unconscious bias in classrooms and disproportionately disciplined.
They could also likely be suffering from childhood trauma — things like food insecurity and broken homes — that isn’t being addressed at its core and is triggering them to act out, said Luke Wood, a dean’s distinguished professor of education at San Diego State.
“It plays a major role. Sometimes what people are viewing as misbehavior are signs of trauma,” Wood said.
As a result, those students are at higher risk of dropping out, less likely to attend college, have diminished career prospects, and may enter the criminal justice system through a school-to-prison pipeline, according to the 44-page report.
“The bottom line is that you’ve got to keep kids in school and have to find a way to do it. If you’re pushing kids out of school, that's not working out for you and not working out for the kids,” said John McDonald, director of the Sudikoff Institute for Education and Media at UCLA.
The Kern High School District, which became the focus of a lawsuit settled last year for what some parents described as discriminatory disciplinary practices targeting black and Latino students, was not listed among districts needing improvement by researchers.
Just eight years ago, that district reported more than 2,200 expulsions, — the highest statewide — and black students were expelled at rates almost 600 percent higher than white students. It has since implemented restorative justice practices and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a systems approach that has been gaining popularity to create inclusive environments for students and reinforce positive behavior.
The results? The district expelled 26 students in 2016-17. Three of them were black. Suspension rates among all students dropped almost 4 percent for all students, and about 6 percent for black students between 2013-14 and 2016-17, according to district data.
“Progress has been made. People did tackle it, districts like Kern (High School District) did tackle it, and there’s been improvement across the state ... but black males are still overrepresented even though there’s been that gain,” McDonald said. African-American students, for example, remain as the most suspended population at KHSD schools, according to district data.
The report, however, identified Fairfax Elementary School District — a four-school district of about 2,900 students in east Bakersfield — as an area of “urgent concern” for black male suspension. The district suspended more than 33 percent of all enrolled black male students during the 2016-17 school year, according to state data.
Fairfax Superintendent Michael Coleman said that his district has, for more than a year, taken steps to reduce the number of suspensions at its campuses. It has instituted PBIS, created an in-house alternative to out-of-school suspensions and built a parent education center so that experts can assist parents with at-risk students.
“Nobody who works for Fairfax is happy with even one suspension, no matter the color. We want them at school,” said Coleman. “When you’re administering at a school site, the last thing we’re worried about is if they’re Latino or African-American or white or socio-economically deprived — this is a child who has committed some type of an offense that needs to be dealt with accordingly.”
Fairfax, Coleman said, has seen a minor increase in suspensions overall — less than 1 percent — but it’s also experienced rapid growth in enrollment. The district took in about 160 new students in fall 2016.
Fairfax’s suspension rates among black students have decreased 1.2 percent since last year, according to state data.
The district has suspended 55 students so far this school year, Coleman said. By comparison, Fairfax suspended 174 students by the same date last year.
The UCLA/San Diego State report comes as the California Department of Education has begun urging districts to trim down on suspensions.
By state standards, in order to be in good standing, a district the size of Fairfax should have fewer than 15 suspensions per year — something Coleman described as an unrealistic expectation.
“You have to do what’s fair and right to keep the entire school population safe,” Coleman said. “I don’t think you’ll ever get to a zero suspension rate, and it’s unreasonable to even think about.”
The report, however, did lay out a list of recommendations for getting closer to that goal. It includes creating more ongoing professional development to educate teachers on unconscious bias; a district-level intervention plan creating a framework for reducing suspensions; advocates for foster youth; and the elimination of suspensions in early childhood education.
Black students in grades pre-K-3 were 5.6 times more likely to be suspended than their peers — the greatest disparity among age groups, according to the report.
Such disciplinary practices at early ages may negatively shape a student’s perception of school and erode a student’s trust with educators, the report said.
Doing away with suspensions and embracing restorative practices at an early age through graduation could quell complaints heard among high school teachers that PBIS and the discouragement of suspending students leaves them powerless when it comes to misbehaving students, Wood said.
“It’s a mismatch in expectations,” Wood said. “You’ve created a system in early years of schooling where they’re so used to suspension basically being the stick, and then you come into higher education and say it’s no longer on the table.”
The power of restorative practices transforming behavior, Wood said, would only come after students take part in it throughout their entire educational lives.
“We have to begin at the root, and the root is really early childhood education,” Wood said. “We’re talking about our young boys — our babies.”