New numbers published last week by the California Department of Education show that, like the rest of the state, the West Contra Costa Unified School District is moving away from once-popular “zero tolerance” policies to remedy student misbehavior.
The Obama administration in January released guidelines for school administrators recommending that suspension and expulsion only be used as a last resort. The guidelines included data showing that minority and special-needs kids are disproportionately affected by “zero tolerance” discipline methods.
“It starts a cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline,” said local school board member Todd Groves. “It doesn’t serve anybody well.”
The district recorded the lowest number of student expulsions since 2005 last year, according to data released last week by the California Department of Education. Groves said no students have been expelled this year.
Suspensions were reduced by about 40 percent in 2009, and have held steady since then—at around 7,000 students per year. However, total suspension numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Rather than sending kids home, schools are making use of in-school suspensions to discipline kids at a much higher rate than they were before.
In 2012, only seven students were disciplined with in-school suspensions. Last year, almost 900 students received in-school suspensions. Groves said this represents a shift in the district’s policy. “It’s a reflection of the philosophy that throwing kids out of school isn’t the best way to teach them a lesson.”
About two years ago, WCCUSD began implementing a restorative justice model of discipline in schools, and school officials say they are seeing the positive effects. A school district spokesperson declined comment on the disciplinary developments and refused multiple requests for interviews.
The Richmond Police Department has reported a 40 percent decrease in juvenile arrests over the past 10 years. And in 2013, the number of students arrested in school was down 33 percent from the year before.
“We’ve been able to have students come in with their parents and resolve conflicts,” said Randy Enos, co-chair of the district’s safety subcommittee. “It’s not perfect, but it’s been working pretty well.”
Carlos Hernandez, a 16-year-old student at Richmond High said he is skeptical that teachers are really adopting these new policies at his school. He recounted a story of being suspended for three days in 2012 for asking his Spanish teacher for a pencil. Teachers and administrators with knowledge of the incident couldn’t be reached to comment for this article.
Hernandez said the police officers on school grounds overreact when dealing with students. “They see a fight, and they just tackle them [students]. Drop them on the ground. They use too much force, I’m guessing.”
RPD spokesperson Sgt. Nicole Abetkov said that School Resource Officers get specialty training in defense tactics and school policy, and that the department’s review panel has not found any excessive use of force on the part of school officers. “Do we like to put our hands on people? No, we don’t,” she said. “But we have to protect people from getting injured. That includes us.”
Some teachers really do make an effort to have good communication with the students, Hernandez said, while others seem to dislike speaking to students.
Scottie Smith, an educational advocate for the past 32 years who is currently working with an organization called Blackboard, helps kids with suspension or expulsion issues. Smith said she would give the district a C plus or even a low B for its discipline practices.
“It’s much better than what it used to be,” Smith said. “We have to help these kids rather than demonize them.”
Despite what some see as positive changes to their discipline model, the WCCUSD has had its fair share of difficulties in recent years. Richmond High was rocked by a brutal gang rape in 2009 that led to multiple convictions and lengthy prison terms last year.
Then last fall, a report from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found that sexual harassment is a very serious problem for the district. Shortly after this report was released, a transgender teen at Hercules High was involved in a fight at school after days of bullying, which went unaddressed by administrators.
Feedback from parents responding to the district’s new strategic plan shows that school safety, bullying, class management, and effective discipline are all still areas of concern for the community.
“Are we being tough enough with kids who are displaying hostile behavior, and what are the alternatives?” school-board candidate Giorgio Cosentino asked.
Cosentino stressed that he is “very serious about compassion,” and that suspension of a student doesn’t mean giving up on them. However, he said he is worried that many teachers are not sufficiently trained in how to deal with disruptive students.
“I went through the credentialing program,” he said. “It did little to prepare you for the realities, from a practical standpoint, of really what you’re going to be wrestling with.” Cosentino said budget cuts, large classes, and high teacher turnover have all contributed to a very troubling school climate in the district.
While more suspensions may not be the answer, Cosentino said non-disruptive students also have a right to their education. “Anyone who is disrupting is stealing education from the other students. So there is this balance.”
School board member Groves said he is aware of the difficulties with safety that the district has had, and is hopeful that greater funding from the state will help improve services to address students’ social and emotional needs.
“You want climate and culture where students are protected and safe, and adults are there for their well-being,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to achieve.”
Enos, the safety subcommittee member, said these new resources are long overdue, and that they should help improve the safety and quality of the schools. “As far as our district, we have gone ahead and made some heavy commitments to taking on the issue of bullying,” he said.
The district won’t be reverting back to its old expulsion and suspension policies anytime soon. “Suspension is a loss for us and a loss for the kids.” Groves said. He acknowledged the fine balance teachers and administrators face in maintaining order and providing the best possible education to all their students.
“This is something we can always do better at,” he said.