Law enforcement: school discipline policies making us less safe, not more

By Daniel Weintraub
California Health Report

Law enforcement leaders from throughout California said Tuesday that overzealous school disciplinary policies are making the state less safe, not more.

The public schools are suspending and expelling too many students for minor offenses, leaving troubled kids on the street without adult supervision and more likely to commit crimes, said three police chiefs, a county sheriff and a district attorney.

“Students who are frequently suspended from school are at a greater risk of dropping out, and eventually we will see them come across our courtrooms when they turn to crime,” said San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos. A former school board member, Ramos said many districts’ disciplinary practices are a “recipe for greater misbehavior and crime.”

Ramos was joined by Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal, who is president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel, Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk, and Los Gatos Police Chief Scott Seaman, who is president of the California Police Chiefs Association.

The law enforcement leaders were convened by a group called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids to bolster an argument that is increasingly gaining traction in California, the idea that when it comes to school discipline, in many cases less would be more.

Strapped for funds and short of staff, schools suspended more than 700,000 students in the 2010-11 academic year, or about 11 suspensions for every 100 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The majority of those suspensions were for non-violent, non-drug related offenses.

Numbers also show wide disparities among schools and districts. Los Angeles suspended just 5 students per 100 while San Diego suspended 10 per 100 and San Juan Unified, in Sacramento County, suspended 16 per 100 students. Other data show that minority students are far more likely to be suspended than whites, even for committing the same offense.

It might seem that suspending or expelling disruptive students would make schools safer, and that might be true in the short term. And many teachers say it is already difficult enough to maintain an orderly classroom. But there is a trade-off for tough or even “zero-tolerance” school discipline. Research shows that students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school, and drop-outs are more likely to commit crimes. Schools also lose funding when they lose enrollment.

“The only way we can educate our youth is to actually keep them in school,” said Braziel, the Sacramento police chief. Habitually acting out, he said, is “a sign of a child who needs more attention, not less.”

Braziel said a drop-out is 8 times more likely to be incarcerated than someone who graduates from high school. Nationally, he said 70 percent of the prison population is made up of people who failed to graduate from high school.

The Fight Crime group supports a number of bills passed by the Legislature and sent to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, including AB 2242, a measure that would prohibit schools from expelling students for an offense known as “willful defiance.”

Barrie Becker, the group’s state director, said “willful defiance” is a vague, poorly defined “catch-all” offense that schools sometimes use to get rid of disruptive students who have not committed a serious offense. She said that in an estimated 42 percent of suspensions, and 12 percent of expulsions, “willful defiance” is the most severe offense cited.

The legislation is opposed by school administrators and the California School Boards Association, who contend that it would limit the ability of school officials to keep classrooms safe.

But advocates for the measure and several other bills on this topic that the Legislature has sent to Brown’s desk contend that many districts around the state have already shown that they can keep students safe and classrooms functioning well while reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions.

The key, they say, is positive discipline that engages students rather than isolating them.

Oakland schools reported an 87 percent reduction in suspensions after the district began using a strategy known as “restorative justice” that brings perpetrator and victim together to try to make things right. Woodland is using Positive Behavior Intervention Supports and reports saving $100,000 in reimbursements by keeping more students enrolled. Other schools have reported success with a program known as the “Good Behavior Game.”

“Some schools have made great progress,” Seaman said.

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids released a report Tuesday providing local data on suspension rates in California school districts with at least 10,000 students. See the report at

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