Local and state leaders discuss disproportionate discipline

In light of recent findings that discipline rates have increased, particularly for African American and Native American children and students with disabilities, the California Department of Education hosted a panel on March 2 focused on alternatives to discipline.

State and local education leaders and advocates discussed the impact of disproportionate discipline practices on Black, Latino and Native American children, alternatives to suspension and expulsion, and the importance of following California Education Code when using suspension and expulsion.

Panelist Linda Darling-Hammond — president of the State Board of Education and of the Learning Policy Institute — cited research released by LPI in 2021 that found that when schools rely on restorative practices rather than exclusionary ones, schools see less behavior challenges, less gang membership among youth, decreases in bullying, less depression and suicidal ideation among students, higher GPAs and stronger school climate.

Restorative practices include community building — those designed to foster positive school climate and deepen trusting relationships among students and staff; and repair practices — those used to help resolve interpersonal conflicts, make amends, repair harm and make better choices going forward.

“Greater use of restorative practices actually makes schools safer, and students healthier and higher achieving,” Darling-Hammond said.

California officials have consistently chipped away at policies that allow these disproportionate gaps in discipline to develop in the first place. In 2022, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2806, which bans expulsion of preschool students. In 2019, California banned suspensions in elementary and middle schools for willful defiance, defined as disrupting school activities or defying school authorities — a subjective category of discipline which has historically impacted Black youth and students with disabilities far more than their peers. And Senate Bill 274, introduced this year by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), aims to expand the ban on suspensions for willful defiance for all grades.

Additionally, the CDE’s Early Education Division released a report on Feb. 28 highlighting the critical need to disrupt disproportionate discipline patterns and create strength-based and equity-oriented early childhood environments that help boys of color thrive. Creating Equitable Early Learning Environments for Young Boys of Color: Disrupting Disproportionate Outcomes provides a roadmap for improving racial equity through strengthening racial awareness, addressing implicit bias and creating culturally responsive environments that are safe, affirming and engaging for boys of color and their families.

Examples of best practices

Panelists shared examples of changes their LEAs have made or programs adopted that have helped address the disproportionality in their communities.

Darin Brawley, superintendent of Compton Unified School District, noted that in the 11 years he’s been with the district, the graduation rate has increased from 53 percent to 90 percent since moving away from “push out practices” — which can include suspension and expulsion, as well as regularly sending students home early or even forcing them to transfer to another school — and increasing use of restorative practices.

Additionally, the district has implemented trauma-informed initiatives, operates 22 wellness centers, hired mental health support staff, works closely with local community groups to support district efforts, provides ongoing training to maintain a Multi-Tiered System of Supports and more.

“Under the direction of the governing board, we began this turnaround process related not just to academics but also wellness initiatives to address the social-emotional needs of our students,” Brawley said. “We wanted to ensure that each student, regardless of their existing circumstances, has the resiliency necessary to reach their full academic potential.”

San Diego County Office of Education Superintendent Paul Gothold said that through a blueprint for action and policy shifts that included the adoption of restorative practices, the county has seen a 500 percent reduction in suspensions of Black and brown youth, as well as expulsion rates cut in half, which has had positive impacts on the school-to-prison pipeline. Overhauling how the education system views discipline is a key factor for any LEA wanting to address disparate disciplinary rates, he noted.

“When we talk about restorative practices, when we talk about not expelling [students], I’m not talking about them being free of consequence. But for us … first and foremost, we have to acknowledge that this system wasn’t designed to support all kids in the first place,” Gothold said. “We can work differently in support of all kids or we can preserve the status quo. What we’re fundamentally more interested in are the conditions that led up to the act. What the system has had a tendency to do is punish the symptom.”

Any work surrounding ways to address disproportionality in discipline rates should be informed by data, explained Ingrid Roberson, assistant director of Research Learning for the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence (CCEE). LEAs can leverage data systems that already exist, including CalPADS, local student information systems, DataQuest and EdData.

However, that data is only the start of the conversation, she said. “You really need to get into the stories of what’s happening around suspensions. One practice I promote that we saw in quite a few districts is what’s called ‘call a friend.’”

The method requires the site administrators who authorize suspensions to first call a central office administrator to talk about a potential suspension and walk through the thought process. “What we were hearing from districts is that a lot of the times it is the adult reacting, and not responding. And that is an emotional difference,” Roberson said. Taking time to slow down and explain what was happening not only provided good qualitative data, but also allowed staff to thoughtfully and more fully consider the situation.

Next steps

In an effort to pull resources together and highlight best practices from the field, the CDE is encouraging LEAs to email effective strategies they are utilizing and their data to support those strategies to SchoolDiscipline@cde.ca.gov. The CDE will also post resources online for LEAs to support their efforts in reducing disproportionate discipline that impacts all children, especially Black, Latino and Native American children.

And, amid reports that some districts have pushed families toward voluntary or involuntary transfer to avoid reporting expulsions, the CDE has also established a tip line for school staff, parents, students or community members to report any district involved in practices to mask the use and reporting of discipline or to report disciplinary practices that violate California Education Code. Anyone who wants to report school discipline practices that violate California Education Code can call 916-445-4624 or email SchoolDiscipline@cde.ca.gov.