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LA Unified to collect suspension data down to classroom, teacher level

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L.A. Unified plans to begin collecting data on suspension rates at the individual classroom and teacher level starting this summer as part of its effort to improve its schools, a district official said today.

"It starts at the classroom level," said Isabel Villalobos, coordinator of student discipline and expulsion support for L.A. Unified. "We're building systems where we can determine is [the suspension rate because of] a particular student, a particular teacher, or is it a combination of both."

The district has worked to detail its suspension rates over the last year, tracking more details including who is suspended and for how many days, but now it will be "drilling down into the classroom" and collecting data relevant to each teacher, Villalobos said. She said the plan is to have the system up and going in July.

report released today by UCLA's The Civil Rights Project found that a black male student with disabilities was most likely to be suspended from the classroom in California's largest districts compared to other students.

At L.A. Unified, African Americans males with a disability have a 36 percent risk of suspension versus a 20 percent risk for those without. 

That report was based on data released by the U.S. Department of Education in March, which indicated proportional discrepancies across race; though black students make up about 9 percent of the enrollment in L.A. Unified, they account for 26 percent of suspensions.

Superintendent John Deasy said L.A. Unified has worked to address this, and that the picture has improved as the district has begun to track each school on a monthly basis and worked to avoid sending students home for more subjective and often minor reasons, such as a "defiance."

There is a common perception that students are suspended only for very serious problems, said Deasy in a recent interview. 

"However, that was not the reason why a majority of these suspensions were taking place," Deasy said. "It was this issue called defiance. What we began to realize was we were pushing kids out, and that was a very very grave problem."

More than 40 percent of suspensions in California are given out for "willful defiance," said Laura Faer, education rights director for the nonprofit Public Counsel. And because it is so subjective, it often has a much greater impact on students of color. A bill is working its way through the state Legislature to try and limit the use of such out-of-school suspensions for behaviors that can include failing to bring materials to class, not paying attention, or talking back.

Education Code Section 48900 delineates the circumstances in which a student may be suspended in great detail, specifying circumstances in which it is necessary, such as possession of a firearm, possession of tobacco, stealing, among others. It also states:

"A superintendent of the school district or principal may use his or her discretion to provide alternatives to suspension or expulsion, including, but not limited to, counseling and an anger management program, for a pupil subject to discipline under this section."

At LAUSD suspensions are broken down into three categories: the first includes no principal discretion, for example when a student for example brings a weapon to school; the second limited discretion, for example if a student assaults a school employee; and the third broad discretion, for example, fighting or defiance such as talking back or failing to follow a teacher's directions, Villalobos said.

At L.A. Unified more than half of the suspensions come out of that third, more broadly discretionary category, and many of them include defiance, Villalobos said.

"There are not even guidelines about what defiance means," Deasy said. "Basically it's a category used to suspend someone. And multiple suspensions basically signal, 'Don't come here anymore,' and this is why I strongly suspect, and the team understands, we don't really have a high drop-out rate, we have a push-out rate, and we intend to change that."

Part of that effort involves identifying teachers that need more support or classroom management training, as well as working to identify what is happening with the student by encouraging a discussion instead of a knee-jerk reaction, Villalobos said.

The district has a group that focuses on "positive behavior support," which has been meeting with school and community leaders over the last five years to discuss ways to reduce school suspension rates, Villalobos said. Each school comes up with a plan to address its particular needs, depending on the culture and school climate, she said.

Villalobos said every school has had leaders take place in "positive behavior support" group discussion so far.

Overall, Villalobos said the district has improved in its suspension and expulsion rates over the last 15 years.

"Can we do a better job on African Americans and special ed students?," Villalobos said. "That's our focus right now."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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