“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been suspended,” Dr. Prince White recalled asking the young men in the support group he leads at Urban Peace Movement, an organization that teaches Oakland youth about social justice.
Twenty-five hands went up, he recalled, as all of them— African Americans between ages 16 and 25—admitted that they’d been suspended at least once in their lifetimes.
A recent study suggests that not only do suspensions take a toll on students, they place a financial burden on their communities. In March, the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UC Los Angeles released a study revealing that school suspensions could cost communities across the state a total of $2.7 billion per graduating class.
Daniel Losen, director of the Civil Rights Project at the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, said he and a partner, economist Dr. Russell W. Rumberger, director of UCSB’s California Dropout Research Project, tracked a cohort of tenth graders in all 400 school districts across California between 2011 and 2014. They discovered that in all districts, graduation rates were much lower for students who had been suspended compared to students who had not been suspended.
Losen said students who don’t graduate will most likely earn less money throughout their lifetimes, and therefore will not be able to contribute financially to their communities as much as high school graduates. He added, “They’re more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to commit crimes, and become a burden on welfare system at any given time.”
According to their study, out of the 2,874 students in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), 459 had been suspended between 2011 and 2014. The graduation rate for non-suspended students was 68.8 percent and 38.8 percent for students who were suspended.
The study shows that 482 out of 2,162 students were suspended during those same school years in West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), which covers schools in Richmond. The graduation rate for non-suspended students was 82.7 percent, and 56.4 for students who were suspended.
Losen and Rumberger also broke down the cost of suspensions over this cohort’s lifetime by district. Suspensions of OUSD students alone would cost the surrounding communities $17 million over the lifetime of the observed students, they estimated.
Communities surrounding WCCUSD would suffer an $18 million loss.
Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association, the district’s teachers’ union, said suspensions are temporary solutions that lead to long-term problems. Regarding the $17 million hit Oakland communities could take, she said, “I would agree with those statistics. It’s been proven in another way that suspension may solve an issue for a day, but it only comes out later.”
Gorham added that suspended students often later end up in the criminal justice system. “Suspension is one of the school-to-prison pipelines. It is a punitive measure. We find that even retention of students causes dropouts later,” she said.
Losen and Rumberger estimated the $2.7 billion statewide loss based on economist Clive Belfield’s research on the costs of high school dropouts and suspensions. They projected the financial burden of this cohort between ages 18 and 65 by using Belfield’s economic model and broke the costs down into four general categories: earnings, crime, health and welfare.
According to Belfield’s study, out of $320 billion in expenditures in the 2012 fiscal year, California spent $43 billion on crime, including “corrections, police protections, fire protection and judicial and legal services.” His study also states: “over two-thirds of county-level spending was for public protection and public assistance (e.g., welfare or social services), but less than 1% was spent on education.”
Although Losen and Rumberger’s research does not include how much suspensions cost schools, state-funded schools lose funding when students are absent, regardless of the reason. According to OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki, the district receives $67.61 per day for each attending high school student. This is called ADA, or average daily attendance.
Gorham said losing state funding because of absences is unfair to impoverished areas. “Money based on ADA is inequitable on its face. What schools and cities have lower ADA? Schools of high poverty,” she said. She said that a school’s expenses don’t decrease if students are absent. “The lights don’t cost less, teachers don’t cost less, custodians don’t cost less because students don’t show up,” she said. “Our communities are being punished [by] having money taken away based on ADA. It should be based on enrollment.”
She also said Oakland schools can’t afford to lose any more funding. “You see it happening right now. The district has frozen funds,” she said, referring to the district’s decision this March to reduce spending by $10 million. “Nobody can buy pencils”
A district press release from March lists several reasons for the freeze, including low enrollment. The new protocol limits general purchases and freezes hiring and travel. Interim Superintendent Dr. Devin Dillon is quoted in the release saying, “It’s critical that we take these disciplined measures to achieve financial health going forward and be able to keep our focus on providing high quality education.”
Losen and Rumberger’s study also shows racial disparities in suspensions. According to the study, between 2011 and 2014, African American males represented 7 percent of the California’s 10th grade student population, but 15.6 percent of suspensions.
They found that 29.2 percent of African Americans and 16.2 percent of Latinos in California schools were suspended over the three-year time span. The statewide average for suspensions of all students within the sophomore to senior year cohort was 14.9 percent.
In Oakland, school officials have grappled for years with similar racial disparities. In May, 2012, the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) reviewed OUSD’s discipline practices and discovered disparities between how African American and white students were disciplined. Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland-based non-profit for family educational and employment support also studied the district that year and found one in five African American male high school students were suspended during the 2010-2011 school year. Their study also states that while that same year white male students missed fewer than 250 days of school because of suspensions, African American males missed nearly 6,000.
In September, 2012, the school district passed a voluntary resolution plan as a result of OCR’s findings, which would revise disciplinary policy over the next five years. These revisions included using alternative options for suspensions, such as parent-teacher conferences, interventions and adopting problem-solving strategies.
Theresa Clincy, the OUSD director of Attendance and Discipline Support Services, said the district is moving away from suspensions and encouraging teachers and principals to use them as a last resort. Clincy said suspensions hurt students the most. “They lose instructional time. This means that they also suffer isolation. They’re more exposed to being brought into the juvenile justice system,” she said.
Clincy said they’ve adopted alternative interventions for disruptive behavior, a system called Positive Behavior Interventions Support, or PBIS, which she called a more proactive way of dealing with misbehavior. It focuses on three tiers of behavior management. The first step is for school leaders and teachers to model acceptable behavior, like being respectful and resolving problems. The next step is to provide small group support, including counseling, and individualized support, which could include a conference with the student’s parent.
But Clincy said any violent action—including possession of weapons or drugs, or sexual assault—still results in an automatic suspension.
Like the OUSD, WCCUSD has also adopted PBIS and a method called restorative justice, which have led to a decline in suspensions. Restorative justice requires teachers to provide community-building through conversations immediately following a disruption, family-group conferencing, and accepting students back to the school community after the disruption.
Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond, said in order for the strategies to work, teachers need professional development in these techniques. He added both disciplinary methods have failed in schools that lack professional development and support for teachers, students and parents as well as “follow-through by administration.”
But, Gonzalez said, providing that costs more money. “To support these methods we need to see an increase of funds that go to the sites so that the sites can properly advocate for what they need to grow their program,” he said.
Staffers at some schools say they’ve already seen success with using these methods. At Hoover Elementary School in West Oakland, instead of suspensions detentions, this year the staff has used breathing exercises for students who feel angry, or recommended music or reflection time. When those tactics don’t work, students’ parents are invited in to discuss the issue.
So far, the staff have not suspended one student this year. “This year we haven’t had any suspensions, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t had any problems,” said restorative justice coordinator Adimu Madyun. He said when there’s a conflict between students he works with, teachers, parents and students to resolve the problem, rather than remove the student who “initiated” it. He said it’s up to the school leaders to make the student who’s been removed feel wanted again and to make all students feel safe.
Madyun said restorative justice helps the offender and offended. “The old style [of discipline] is ‘Jimmy hit John. We’re going to suspend Jimmy,’” he said. “Restorative justice asks, ‘What are we going to do when Jimmy comes back to school?’ If we don’t do that, Jimmy might want to get back at John or John on Jimmy. We have to solve the problem.”
Madyun said many of the students who exude anger have a valid reason, ranging from lack of sleep because their parents were working late or hunger because they can’t afford to eat breakfast.
Another program that works to fight for fair discipline and achievement for a district’s African American students is the OUSD’s Office of African American Male Achievement (AAMA). Their programs include the Student Leadership Council, which encourages middle and high school students to participate in school councils, and the “Manhood Development Program,” a mentoring program that operates in 17 Oakland schools.
AAMA’s program director Jerome Gourdine said these programs are important because they teach young men how to express themselves. “It creates a momentum of leadership. We’re bringing a voice to the voiceless — our African American males,” he said.
When it comes to students who have been suspended, AAMA makes sure they receive fair treatment. Gourdine said, “Sometimes we advocate for an alternative instead of a suspension. We’re accessible to their families if they need support in deciding whether they felt that suspension was justified or not.” Gourdine said their work benefits parents, too. “Parents feel really empowered to know they have someone who’s an expert in the school system that can support them,” he added.
According to AAMA’s research, suspensions among African Americans have slightly dropped from 6,890 during the 2011-2012 school year to 6,321 during the 2013-2014 school year.
AAMA’s data, published in August, 2014, shows graduation rates among African American males increased from 46.6 percent during the 2010-2011 school year to 50.6 percent 2011-2012 and 52.4 percent during the 2012-2013 school year. Dropout rates among the same demographic dipped from 35.6 percent to 30.8 percent to 25.8 percent over the same time period. West Oakland’s Castlemont High School in particular showed “high” improvements in reducing overall suspensions according to the 2015-2016 School Performance Framework, a study by the district that examines its schools’ academic and cultural performance.
“We’ve made a change in terms of the recognition of African American males. But there definitely is a lot more work to do,” Gourdine said, adding that more research needs to be done to determine the district’s progress, which will require more funding.
Prince White, the program coordinator for Urban Peace Movement, said he sees those disparities being reflected among the young men he mentors. Not only did all 25 of the participating young black men in his group admit to being suspended, White said, but one quarter of them said they had been expelled before, too. One young man from Stockton said he had been suspended 54 times by the time he reached 8th grade. “Look at how they’re treated at school from metal detectors to disproportionate detentions and suspensions. Treatment is terrible,” White said.
White said he uses the young men’s experiences to help them talk about the school-to-prison pipeline so that they can change the system, rather than succumb to it.
Youth UpRising (YU) is another community organization working to combat suspensions in schools. Hannah Kahl, the group’s education manager, said they currently provide counseling to troubled students at Castlemont High School. They also provide afterschool programming at their community facility—classes like SAT prep, video production and graphic design—which according to Kahl, promotes better behavior and academic performance.
According to Kahl, afterschool programs generally keep students on the right track. “Teens who do not participate in afterschool programs are nearly three times more likely to skip classes at school than teens who do participate,” she said. She added those who don’t attend afterschool programs are three times more likely to fall into other mischievous activities including drug and alcohol use and sexual activity than teens who do attend such programs.
Destiny Iwuoma, college access coordinator at the Richmond RYSE Center, said it’s important for afterschool program staffers to be allies for students who have been suspended. RYSE provides afterschool activities similar to Youth Uprising, as well as college readiness programing like a free college campus tour that goes to several campuses in southern California.
Iwuoma recalled encountering a student who’d recently been suspended. “He came into my office. I asked if he wanted to play basketball. I didn’t ask him about the suspension and his day went on. I supported him through that,” he said. “They get a bad rap — ‘You’re bad.’ I gave him an adult ally. I let him know that I support you and care about you and if you want to talk about it later, I got you.”
Losen said he hopes the study will encourage instructors to think twice about suspensions, to benefit students, schools and communities. He used to be a teacher himself, and admits that he had trouble managing his classroom at first.
“I taught for 10 years. My first year I was that teacher sending kids to the principal left and right,” he said. “But I became a better teacher. By my fourth year I never sent kids to the principal’s office.”
Gorham pointed out that ultimately a principal, not a teacher, makes decisions about suspension. “Teachers don’t suspend at all. Teachers do not have the power to suspend students from school. Only an administrator has that power,” she said.
But she agrees that it takes time for new teachers to learn strong classroom management techniques and to find the best way to fairly discipline students. “Teaching is a craft and you only become good at your craft as you practice and learn,” she said. “Yes, every new teacher’s classroom is a nightmare when it comes to management. What’s important is to give them support from veteran teachers around them so they don’t fall down a rabbit hole.”
While teachers need support, Gorham added students on the verge of suspension need support, too. “No one wants to suspend a student from school. Nobody benefits from it. Kids need to stay in school,” she said.
This story was updated on April 26 to correct the OUSD’s suspension policy. Suspensions are not automatic, but students can be suspended in cases of violence, sexual assault, drugs or weapons.