Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Prospector

prospector-mayjune-2

(Photo: Sebastien Thibault)

Why Do We Keep Kicking Kids Out of School?

• May 07, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: Sebastien Thibault)

In a zero-tolerance era, at least one principal, armed with studies that show how suspensions disengage students and funnel them into a “school to prison” pipeline, is taking a different approach.

Not long ago, Garfield High School was issuing almost as many suspensions as diplomas. Two, three, four times a day, deans at the East Los Angeles campus were sending home unruly students—a tally that, in 2008-09, peaked at 683, while the senior class numbered 724. The way administrators saw it, removing kids for even minor misbehavior, under the California Education Code’s vague catchall of “willful defiance,” came with the turf: a Mexican American neighborhood with persistent gangs and few opportunities. Garfield was such a failure that in 2009 the district invited charter operators to submit takeover plans.

“We were going in the wrong direction,” says Jose Huerta, who became principal during the 2009-10 school year, after parents, protective of Garfield’s nearly century-old legacy, persuaded the district to keep the school in local hands.

A bearish figure with a jet-black mustache, Huerta grew up in East L.A., two blocks from Garfield. Over his protests, his own parents had forbidden him to attend the school in the 1970s, insisting on a collar-and-tie parochial education instead. To give the community the school he felt it deserved, Huerta adopted a daring strategy—one at odds with the harsh discipline policies that have swept schools since the Columbine tragedy in 1999. In a zero-tolerance era, Garfield would be the most tolerant: not complaisant but compassionate, intent on deciphering and resolving problems instead of ushering them out the door. On Huerta’s watch, there would be no more suspensions. “If I suspend them,” he says, “I can’t teach them.”

Students who were suspended just once were nearly three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

In the four years since Huerta took over, Garfield has suspended exactly three students. Even some of those elicited his sympathy: One kid, whose family worked in the recycling business, had inadvertently come to school with a box cutter in his backpack. But state law mandates suspensions for weapons and Huerta had no choice. Over the same period, Garfield’s API—a 1,000-point index that California uses to measure test performance—has jumped from 593 to 714. The graduation rate has soared from 54 to 85 percent.

From Baltimore to Denver to Walla Walla, school officials are embracing measures similar to Huerta’s, determined to slow the machinery that annually suspends more than three million students nationwide—as many as half of them for relatively minor offenses. These moves are being propelled by a growing body of research showing that suspensions, rather than correcting bad behavior, disengage students and help funnel them into a “school to prison” pipeline.

One study in Texas showed that students who were suspended just once were nearly three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Other studies reported that students suspended even once from ninth grade were twice as likely to drop out. And data from more than 26,000 U.S. middle and high schools shows that suspensions disproportionately befall kids who already face steeper odds: In 2009-10, according to the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies, 24 percent of black secondary students were suspended, compared to 12 percent of Latinos, eight percent of whites, and two percent of Asians. Students with disabilities—learning disorders, mostly, which can contribute to behavioral issues—were suspended at a rate of 19 percent. For African American boys with disabilities, the rate jumped to 36 percent.

“Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in January, as he and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued guidelines warning the nation’s schools not to violate civil rights laws when meting out discipline.

At Garfield—lauded in the 1980s for the success of math teacher Jaime Escalante, the subject of the movie Stand and Deliver—the moratorium on suspensions was part of a broader rethinking of the school’s relationship with its students. Huerta divided an unwieldy campus into five learning communities, enlisted parent volunteers, and sacrificed technology upgrades to assemble a team of counselors, tutors, and social workers. Rather than dwell on punishments, his staff focused on rewards—such as staging a red-carpet walk during Oscar season for students with perfect attendance. That might be a uniquely L.A. incentive, but schools everywhere are now experimenting with similar approaches, known in the field as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. A 2012 study of 37 U.S. schools found that such tactics have reduced office discipline referrals by 33 percent.

During the turbulent year when Huerta took over at Garfield, a freshman named Marco Antonio Aguilar was among the regular headaches. “I was still in that juvenile mentality, just all negative thoughts,” says Aguilar, who was then affiliated with a tagging crew and grappling with attention deficit disorder. But Huerta’s team always stepped in, assessing the boy’s needs, offering advice. “They helped me resurrect myself,” says Aguilar, who is graduating this summer.

Hoping to replicate Huerta’s success, L.A.’s Board of Education voted last May to abolish willful defiance as grounds for suspension—a category that encompasses everything from talking back to using a cell phone, and that accounted for 48 percent of California’s 710,000 suspensions in 2011-12. Activists cheered the move; traditionalists scoffed. “Here’s what the school board is saying: ‘We surrender,’” Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly told his viewers. Under the new policy, students can still be suspended for more serious offenses, including drugs and weapons.

A bill is now making its way through the California legislature that would eliminate, statewide, willful defiance suspensions for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and permit suspension of older students only after a third offense. A similar bill passed in 2012, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. “I vetoed it because I used to be willfully defiant myself,” Brown, a product of parochial schools, told a gathering of business leaders. “Getting kicked out of school, that got my attention.”

As Huerta has shown, of course, enlightened administrators can devise meaningful solutions even without a change in the law. “There’s nothing here that’s rocket science,” he says, greeting students one recent morning with a mix of Spanglish and fist bumps. He lowered suspensions, but not expectations. “Buenos días,” he hollers to a straggler outside the main gate. “A little late, young lady. What happened? Whose fault was it today?”


This post originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “’If I Suspend Them, I Can’t Teach Them.’” For more, subscribe to our print magazine.

Jesse Katz
Jesse Katz is a contributing writer as Los Angeles magazine and the author of the memoir The Opposite Field.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.