California school discipline numbers need scrutiny

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Did schools in Sacramento County, California, really suspend 6,645 students last year for having a firearm at school? What about Alameda County, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where raw numbers fed into a state database had 6,594 kids suspended for packing a gun?

Clearly, the answer is no. But we found these funny figures — and another huge error — while digging into raw numbers that California’s schools must submit to the state’s Department of Education after the close of each academic year. The department adds up the raw numbers of disciplinary actions and categorizes them by county, district, school and infraction and posts the information on its website for the public to see starting in September. 

The Center discovered the mistakes while sifting and adding up raw data as part of an investigation into extraordinarily high rates of student expulsions in Kern County in the Golden State’s Central Valley. We wanted to compare which of 34 separate education code violations led to kids getting suspended and expelled in each California county.

Alameda has problems with youth violence, to be sure. But it was beyond belief that one school, Arroyo High School, could have had 1,198 suspensions for violating a specific state education code prohibition on guns.

We had the same thought in regard to Sacramento’s numbers. The county’s Twin Rivers Unified district initially appeared to have reported a cluster of thousands of suspensions, specifically for guns, which made us wonder if the county's overall figures were inflated. One school, Foothill High, seemed to have suspended 689 kids for guns, based on the raw numbers filed. Yes, Sacramento County also has some problems with youth violence. But a reality check was in order.

We called the state’s department of education in November and were told that staff would check back with local counties and schools. We were also told that human error at the school level or maybe a program glitch were likely culprits. Two weeks ago we obtained raw data with corrected numbers for Sacramento. The new round of data showed that there were actually two gun-related expulsions — a gun usually is guaranteed expulsion — in the Twin Rivers district last year, and eight expulsions specifically for guns in all of Sacramento County.

Alameda County’s inflated data wasn’t corrected in the second spreadsheet. But state staff told us it had to be wrong.

These weren’t the only errors. The state database initially showed that Orange County’s schools expelled 3,827 students last year, more than anywhere in California, and far more than the year before. After local schools were alerted to the inflated number, corrections were made and the Orange figure was dropped to 870 about two weeks ago.

Why does it matter?

School discipline data is required for federal and state program applications. And this sort of information is in greater public demand now, as a national debate heats up over escalating suspensions and expulsions. Parents, the media and advocacy organizations all want access to raw numbers to break them down themselves to see what the details show. The Obama Administration is urging schools — even ordering some — to improve data collection so we can better grasp which kids are getting booted out of school and why.   

In fairness, the California Department of Education posts a disclaimer on its website, warning that the department’s staff relies on about 9,900 schools to be accurate and submit numbers on time every summer. On Monday the state’s database was offline, probably to correct inconsistences, we were told.

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