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Suspensions push foster and homeless youth out of SoCal’s classrooms

Homeless and foster youth are some of Southern California’s highest need students, but they are also the students who find themselves excluded from classrooms the most.

A recent study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project and the National Center for Youth Law found in district after district that suspensions fuel dramatic disparities in class instruction time for students with unstable homes or disabilities.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has emerged as an exception to this pattern, reserving suspensions for the most extreme forms of misbehavior and using counseling and other in school interventions to address most behavioral issues, district officials said.

In the 2021 to 2022 school year, students in California lost about 10 instructional days due to suspensions per 100 students enrolled, the study found.

Foster youths lost 77 school days, almost eight times as many days as the state average, while homeless students lost 26 school days and students with disabilities lost 24.

Losing significant time in the classroom not only exacerbated learning loss during the pandemic, but also severed students’ connections to vital school resources, the study’s authors concluded.

“Kicking them out, even for one day, might cause them to miss the day of the week that they get counseling services or the day they receive intensive reading instruction,” said Daniel Losen, co-author and the senior director at the National Center for Youth Law. “For a homeless student, they might literally be kicking them out onto the streets.”

Foster youth, in particular, are more likely to exhibit behavioral challenges resulting in suspensions, because of the high levels of stress, trauma and instability they experience, Losen said. Suspensions can have dramatic consequences such as putting their foster family placements in peril, the study notes.

That, he argues, makes it even more essential that schools adapt alternative approaches to discipline that let foster students remain in school where they are provided with the stability of a daily routine, reliable meals, access to counselors and other vital resources.

The disparities between students’ lost instruction time due to suspensions are even more dramatic when measured based on race. At the state level, Black foster youth lost 133 instructional days per 100 students enrolled – more than any other category of students.

“Although California has made substantial strides in its school discipline reform efforts, foster and homeless youth—especially those who are African American—are losing their right to equal educational opportunity because they are being suspended from school in a manner that causes extreme disparities in lost instruction,” study co-authors Losen and Ramon Flores, state in the report.

“There’s a lot we can be doing differently that doesn’t involve kicking students out of school,” Losen added in an interview.

In 2013, LAUSD became the first district in California to ban suspensions for “willful defiance,” a term that encompasses many forms of disobedience and misconduct. In the 2021 to 2022 school year, LAUSD students lost only 0.7 days of instruction due to suspensions per 100 students, compared to 10 days of lost instruction at the state level.

In recognition of LAUSD’s successful approach, Gov. Newsom recently signed a law that requires all districts to implement the ban at middle and high schools by July 2024.

“We applaud Governor Newsom for extending the prohibition on the use of suspension and expulsion to the disruption/defiance category, and urge district administrators to not only fully implement this limit, but to also eliminate other grounds, such as tobacco use, profanity, and vulgarity as grounds for suspension or expulsion,” Losen and Flores state in the report.

The LAUSD school board passed its proactive ban in response to pressure from community activists including members of the parent advocacy organization CADRE, who were alarmed by high levels of suspensions among students of color. In the 2010 to 2011 school year, Black students made up about 9% of LAUSD’s student population and 26% of students who were suspended.

By the 2021 to 2022 school year, Black students at LAUSD only lost 2 days of instructional time per 100 students. In comparison, at Long Beach Unified School district, Black students lost 23.8 school days per 100 students.

“We are encouraged by the results of a recent study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project that highlights our work in reducing suspension rates across the District, but especially among vulnerable student populations,” said LAUSD spokesperson Britt Vaughan. “This is not only the necessary step in providing students with the holistic support they deserve, but also increases their instructional time and thereby reduces learning loss.”

To help handle student behavioral issues without relying on suspensions, LAUSD trains its staff in techniques to work with students who have experienced trauma, how to model and reward positive behavior, how to build a community of respect, how to foster positive emotional expression and communication, and how to address harm in the classroom through discussion.

“While the LAUSD is far from perfect, their progress stands as an example that other large school districts can learn from in reducing out-of-school suspensions,” said Losen.

At Long Beach Unified, where Black students are disproportionately suspended, and in many school districts across Southern California suspensions remain a common tool for dealing with student disobedience.

Evia Cano, a spokesperson for Long Beach Unified, said the district “recognizes the importance of fair and just disciplinary actions” and is taking “proactive steps to ensure an equitable and supportive approach to discipline across our schools.” They are training staff in modeling and rewarding positive behavior and support as well as restorative justice programs. The district also offers counseling, social skills groups, dispute mediation, behavior agreements, and anger management services.

Meanwhile, in districts across the Inland Empire, Black students and other vulnerable student populations bear the brunt of missing school days due to suspensions. The study found a high lost of instruction among students of color and students with disabilities in the Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside, Riverside Unified School District, and San Bernardino Unified School District.

By contrast, at the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County the number of instructional days that children lost due to suspensions was about half the state average in the 2021 to 2022 school year.

“We developed a comprehensive approach to minimize learning loss due to student discipline and suspension,” said Ryan Burris, a Capistrano Unified School District spokesperson. “Our approach uses positive behavior intervention, alternatives to suspension, restorative practices, and the creation of district cultural proficiency goals.”

The district’s cultural proficiency goals outline programs and initiatives to better help vulnerable students including foster students, students with disabilities, homeless students, Latino students, Black students and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

Among its efforts, Capistrano Unified School District places students who have behavioral issues in classrooms with specialized teachers and counselors. District officials say the students are given dedicated attention and are taught life skills in a therapeutic, non-punitive environment.

The study’s authors say that more alternative approaches to student discipline are needed — especially in light of the negative consequences associated with suspensions. Previous research has found that students with one or more out-of-school suspensions, have a lower chance of graduating high school or college and an increased risk of being incarcerated later in life.

“There’s this idea that I’ve seen come up time and time again, that you have to kick out the bad kids, but it’s absolutely a false narrative,” said Losen. “It’s never been a research-based approach. It’s purely punitive and it doesn’t work.”

Reporter Kristy Hutchings contributed to this story

Source: Orange County Register

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