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Racial disparity forces L.A. schools to ban suspensions

Students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will no longer face suspension for minor acts like not coming to class prepared or refusing to remove a hat.

In May, the school board became the first in California to ban suspension for such acts of “willful defiance,” which accounted for nearly half of the suspensions given in the state last year. The district previously had a zero tolerance policy for talking in class, using a cell phone, or similar violations of school rules. One student was suspended for three days for talking out in class, according to published news reports.

A racial disparity among students suspended was the main reason for the change. African American and disabled students were being suspended disproportionately compared to white students, says district spokesperson Daryl Strickland.

“This resolution means more graduations and less incarceration,” says board president Mónica García. “It means adults must learn new strategies to teach and practice new discipline policies that support student success.” The LAUSD vote requires Superintendent John Deasy to outline a new plan for discipline by September.

Though the number of instruction days lost to suspensions at LAUSD has declined since 2006, there were still 26,286 days lost in the 2011-2012 school year. Nationally, suspension rates have increased. In 2010, 7 percent of students were suspended at least once, up from 4 percent in 1973.

“Suspension rates are high, and the gaps that exist between whites and blacks and students with disabilities versus without are significant and growing nationally,” says Tia Martinez, a researcher with the UCLA Civil Rights Project and co-author of the 2012 report “Suspended Education in California.”

Across California, large racial disparities in suspensions exist, the report found: Nearly 1 in 5 African American students was suspended in the 2009-2010 school year, compared to 1 in 17 white students. And 1 in 7 students with disabilities on an IEP received a suspension, compared to 1 in 16 without disabilities.

“The idea behind suspensions is that it’s a wake-up call for kids to get their act together,” Martinez says. “What we’re seeing is quite the opposite—kids are doing worse.” Frequent use of suspensions has no academic benefits, is linked to low achievement, and has a greater risk of dropping out of school and delinquency, Martinez says. Students who are suspended once are five times less likely to graduate than others, studies have shown.

Instead, districts should move to models of positive behavioral interventions, such as teaching social skills and school behavior expectations, that reward positive actions instead of focusing on the negative, she adds.