By Kimetha Hill
The school to prison pipeline is very real for African American students. According to NAACP Criminal Justice branch, African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population in this country, and are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. But the root of this disparity begins years before our young men and women reach adulthood. Black children as young as kindergarten and first grade are being suspended and expelled from school for minor offenses. And 35% of black children in grades 7-12 have been suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers compared to 20% of Hispanics and 15% of whites. Schools are failing our children of color.
In California, the newly passed Local Control Funding Formula incorporates strict stipulations on moneys dedicated to correcting school discipline policies. Last Wednesday, a webinar aimed at fixing school discipline highlighted the financial guidelines schools are now required to follow concerning school climate, and how this will change the atmosphere and instances of suspension and expulsion, particularly among African American children.
LCFF places emphasis on high needs children; low income, English language learners and foster children. In San Diego, those students classified as high needs comprise 67% of the total student population.
Led by Statewide Education Rights Director and Public Counsel, Laura Fauer, the training allowed educators and community members across California the opportunity to learn how school discipline techniques will change under the Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP.
“This is the first time in the state of California that financing requires looking at school climate,” said Fauer. “If we can’t get the school climate under control, then students can’t learn.” Fauer said in order to make learning conducive for all students it’s fundamental to reach the students struggling the most. In California during the 2012-2013 school year there were 609,776 total suspensions, 43% of which were for willful defiance/disruption. 8,564 students were expelled and 329,370 students were suspended. Of course, African American students were disproportionately represented, comprising 29.7% of suspensions, but equaling only 6.5% of the total enrollment.
“When we’re sending kids home, we’re sending them to an unsupervised area,” said Fauer. “People say they don’t want that student [the one who disrupts] messing up the learning environment for other students in the classroom, but there is little support showing the suspension fits as the appropriate punishment.”
In the case of African American students with disabilities, suspension rates are even more alarming. Of male secondary students with disabilities receiving suspensions, 36% were African American, as compared to 23% for Latino males and 18% for White males.
According to the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, The Civil Rights Project, suspended students are more prone to an increased risk of dropping out, are twice as likely to repeat a grade and are three times as likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system.
Fauer stressed that high rates of out-of-school suspensions correlate with lower achievement scores, even after controlling for race and poverty. So it’s a lose-lose situation for schools and students.
But new legislation forces schools to look at and implement alternative forms of punishment, notably restorative justice. California Education Code § 48900.5 states that “..suspension, including supervised suspension, can only be imposed when all other means of correction fail to bring about proper conduct, or if the student has committed a “zero tolerance offense”, or presents a danger to people.”
Every district in the state is required to develop a Local Control Accountability Plan and address the eight state priorities. This will be done in a four step process: creating a baseline/needs assessment for school climate, setting goals for improving school climate and lowering suspensions and expulsions, adopting specific actions to meet the goals and finally, identifying expenditures to meet the goals.
As noted above, willful defiance makes up a huge percentage of the total suspensions at 43%. Fauer said that schools should examine all suspensions and office referrals, and look at the time that is lost in learning for those students.
In step two, schools can then take the data collected and set specific goals for restorative justice. For example, in Los Angeles County, schools have eliminated all willful defiance suspensions through a series of action plans. “The law says you only need one LCAP plan, but should schools do more?” asked Fauer. “Specific schools that need extra help need to develop more than one plan,” she suggested.
In step three, Fauer recommended various action points to consider; restorative justice, substantial mental health support and training for teachers and administrative support. “Evidence-based alternatives involve restorative approaches that acknowledge harm to a person [in this case, a student] has been done.” She added that students want to be able to reconcile and become a part of that practice. In essence, the social climate of the classroom and the school has to change.
Fauer explained that the action plan must be more extreme in trauma-sensitive schools. “In these schools, you have many students who’ve witnessed domestic violence. You have young people who are acting out who have many times experienced trauma. They’re suffering with emotional distress and have a fight or flight response at all times. So we have to address these students’ situations in a proactive manner.” She added that this is where behavioral health responses come in.
“The traditional response of removing a child from school reinforces their typical response to trauma – it says to that child ‘you’re not wanted.’ We are changing that with restorative justice options.”
Finally, in step four where schools must identify expenditures, schools have to list a specific amount of money for each action they plan to take. “They must identify how “supplemental” and “concentration” funding is used to increase or improve services for ELL [English Language Learners], Low Income and Foster youth,” said Fauer.
San Diego County will receive $7,201 per student in the 2013-2014 school year. By the time of LCFF full implementation in 2020-2021, the funding will increase to $11,321 per student.Fauer said that it is important to look at other funding sources, because that is part of the budget. She provides a little known fact that special education funding can be used for an entire school site. “Moving away from exclusionary discipline strategies can increase funding,” she adds.
The idea of fixing school discipline through LCAP is a much needed mandate, and one that will increase the educational foundation of youth across California – providing a fair and equal learning experience for all students.