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Kern expulsions figure into California debate on proposed legislation

Kern Attorney to testify April 11 about county's school discipline

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A California attorney featured in a Center for Public Integrity investigation into school discipline will testify at a hearing at the Golden State’s Capitol in Sacramento on April 11. 

California’s Legislature is considering a number of proposals aimed at reducing student suspensions and expulsions, and paving the way for more use of alternatives to removing students.

Attorney Tim McKinley of Kern County, California, represented students whose experiences were recounted in the Center’s report on Kern, whose schools expelled more students than anywhere else in the state last year. The Center story included data showing that Kern’s schools expelled students at a rate four times greater than the California average and more than seven times the national average. 

Kern’s schools also had one of California’s highest rates of student suspension, a punishment that often paves the way for expulsion. Statistics released in March by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection showed high rates of suspension and expulsion of black students, in particular, from Kern’s schools. Latino students are the largest ethnic group in Kern schools and are suspended and expelled at high rates as well.

Laura Faer, an attorney with the Los Angeles-based pro bono law group Public Counsel, helped organize witnesses to testify on April 11 before the California Assembly Education Committee. The group is sponsoring some of the discipline-related proposals before the Legislature, Faer said, and McKinley’s clients’ experiences illustrate a need for reforms.

 “This has been a year,” Faer said, “when people around the state are finally saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ We know there are evidence-based strategies to help keep kids in school.” These counseling methods are more successful at changing behavior than the practice of removing students from classrooms, Faer said.

Repeated removal from school puts students behind, a growing number of educational experts agree, and can lead students to underperform and drop out.   

The Assembly Education Committee’s website and agenda include a list of multiple proposals to reform suspension and expulsion policies.

They include a proposal requiring that schools document attempts to use alternatives to get at “root causes” of misbehavior before resorting to suspending and expelling students for most offenses. The bill — authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco — refers to “positive behavior support” and “restorative justice,” alternative approaches that have proved successful at improving behavior in schools where they have been adopted.

Another bill by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson of Sacramento would change state law to eliminate out-of-school suspensions or expulsions for students based only on accusations of disruption or defiance of school authority. Instead, students could be assigned to supervised in-school suspension.  

In 2010-2011, the Center found, an unusually high number of students in Kern were expelled for allegedly committing acts of obscenity or vulgarity — more than one in four of all cases in California. Kern also had an exceptionally high number of expulsions for defiance or disruption.

McKinley, a former FBI agent, represented an 11-year-old Latino boy in Kern whose mother fought his expulsion from elementary school for alleged sexual battery and obscenity. He also represented an African-American teenager whose parents fought her expulsion for fighting after another girl picked a fight and physically struck her.    

The Bakersfield Californian, Kern County’s biggest newspaper, published an editorial on March 21 calling the Center’s report on expulsions “troubling,” and declaring that parents and the community “deserve an honest explanation from local schools on why expulsions are so high.”

“The reasons we've heard so far aren't very convincing,” the editorial continues. “Some school officials blame budget cuts, which have led to fewer counselors and psychologists to handle disciplinary problems. But budget cuts have been felt statewide; we're not alone there ... Otis Jennings, who oversees discipline for the Kern High School District, says the study has caught the district's attention, and district high schools are making attempts to send more students to counseling before expelling.”