Police, suspensions in schools need reform, new report urges

Los Angeles, Oakland and Salinas, Calif. school districts

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 Updated:

Kathy Willens/AP

When it comes to student discipline, suspending kids and a heavy police presence in schools are policies that are doing more harm than good, according to a new report on three especially troubled California districts.  

The report released Thursday by University of California scholars and Human Impact Partners is an exhaustive profile of students in South Los Angeles, Oakland and the agribusiness hub of Salinas in Central California. All these communities have high levels of family poverty, high rates of student suspension and high dropout rates. Oakland-based Human Impact Partners reviews data and conducts on-the-ground interviews to assess the effects that public policies have on equity and health in communities.

The report was funded by the California Endowment. The Center for Public Integrity also receives some support from the Endowment.

The Los Angeles school district has already adopted what’s called “positive behavioral support” as an alternative to out-of-school suspension. But researchers found that some L.A. schools are still failing to use the method. As a result, students are still being suspended and losing hundreds of days of school time. The report delves into the high rate of suspensions for “willful defiance,” and the serious discipline challenges the schools face.

The researchers also touch on Los Angeles’ school police, the largest school police force in the nation. They recommend that district police officers, sheriff’s deputies and city police “dedicate a meaningful amount of their professional development over the next three years” to learning about positive behavioral support as “an alternative intervention.” 

The Center for Public Integrity recently obtained and analyzed records of school police citations in Los Angeles, which are heavily concentrated in low-income schools. More than 40 percent of the tickets, many of them for scuffles and disturbing the peace, were issued to kids 14 and younger.

In Salinas, a heavily Mexican immigrant community, researchers examined the city’s gang problem and efforts to reach younger students and deter them from getting into violent activity. The homicide rate in Salinas is about four times the national rate, researchers noted. Educators have instituted pilot programs in “restorative justice” to get students to talk through and resolve disputes rather than schools relying on suspension to try to reform them.

The report describes restorative-justice programs now being used in the Oakland Unified School District. The district had about twice the state’s dropout rate of 17 percent in 2010. Students told researchers getting suspended was a chance not to reform behavior, but to “get high” and “steal stuff” and play videogames.

The Oakland district has other problems.

Last week, the district was informed that a federal grand jury and the FBI are investigating its school police force. Media reports say two incidents are the focus of the probe. One involves the former schools police chief, who resigned in August after admitting to a drunken verbal outburst laced with alleged racist remarks. The other incident is an officer-involved shooting of a 20-year-old non-student. 

Another report released this month that scrutinizes Oakland looks specifically at suspensions of black male students in the district. Oakland is home to one of California’s larger African-American communities. The report by the Urban Strategies Center offers suggestions for how to respond to data showing that black male students, 17 percent of enrollment in in the district in 2010, were 42 percent of all students suspended.

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