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Students need Kern schools to continue shift away from zero tolerance

  • Updated
Gerald Cantu

Gerald Cantu, Ph.D., is the Education Program Associate at the Dolores Huerta Foundation and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Bakersfield College.

On March 28 a free screening of “StrikeOut ,” a powerful dramatization of how the school-to-prison pipeline is perpetuated in schools under zero tolerance policies, will be shown at the Maya Theater in Bakersfield.

Zero tolerance policies, such as the one depicted in the film, skyrocketed after the Columbine High School massacre, in which two seniors killed 12 students and one teacher and injured 21 people. Zero tolerance policies were designed with the intention of creating safe school environments, but school suspensions and expulsions got out of hand when zero tolerance was combined with a policy of willful defiance, which allows teachers to remove students from the classroom for non-violent infractions such as talking back, falling asleep, acting out or cussing. A national crisis in suspensions and expulsions was to follow, and Kern County was not immune.

In late 2011, the Center for Public Integrity reported that in school year 2010-11, Kern County expelled 2,578 students. No county in California expelled more of its students, including Los Angeles County, which had nine times as many students. Additionally, Kern County was second only to Yuba County in expulsion rates. (Yuba County expelled 15.7 of every 100 of its students, whereas Kern County expelled 14.9 of every 100 of its students.)

Unfortunately, students of color were more likely to be impacted by these policies. African American students comprised 8 percent of enrollment but 15 percent of expulsions. Latino students comprised 55 percent of enrollment but 60 percent of expulsions. White students comprised 32 percent of enrollment but 22 percent of expulsions.

The situation was intolerable. Soon after the reports detailing the impact of exclusionary discipline, the Kern Education Justice Collaborative was convened and included such partners as Building Healthy Communities — South Kern, the Dolores Huerta Foundation and Faith in Action. The KEJC focused its efforts on Kern High School District and advocated for adoption of alternative discipline policies which would keep students in school rather than pushing them out.

Three years of advocacy on the part of the KEJC, parents, students, community leaders and other allies came to fruition in 2015-16. KHSD adopted new discipline policies based on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a system of discipline which aims to change disciplinary attitudes and approaches in teachers and administrators, and restorative justice, which focuses on changing the mindset of the offender by initiating a dialogue between the victim(s) and the offender. KHSD allocated $2.59 million in 2015-16 to implement PBIS and restorative justice in the first year of a seven-year-phase-in period.

Progress has been made but the work is just beginning. In 2014-15 KHSD suspended students at a rate of 12 percent, which is three times over the state average. It expelled students at twice the rate of the state average. The community must remain engaged to ensure that KHSD reverses these trends by faithfully implementing PBIS and restorative justice and creating a school climate that dismantles the school-to-prison pipeline. Whether school climate improves in 2015-16 is yet to be seen, but the outcome will depend in large part on the quality of KHSD’s implementation. What is certain is that the community will need to continue monitoring the implementation of the new discipline policies and advocating for changes.

The screening of “StrikeOut” is an opportunity to continue this discussion. The film will be followed by a panel discussion with panelists Dr. Ramona Bishop, Superintendent, Vallejo City Unified School District; Dr. Robert Arias, Chief of Local and Statewide Initiatives, Kern County Superintendent of Schools; Miguel Orozco, Writer and Producer of “StrikeOut”; Erika Brooks, DHF Education Program Director; and Joey Williams, Lead Organizer, Faith in Action.

Parents, students, community leaders, residents and educators are invited to participate. “StrikeOut” will be screeneds on Monday at 6:30 p.m. at the Maya Theater on 1000 California Ave.

For more information call me at 322-3033 ext. 1209 or reserve your seats at

Gerald Cantu, Ph.D., is the Education Program Associate at the Dolores Huerta Foundation and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Bakersfield College.

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