Education

California suspension and expulsion rates drop again but racial gaps remain

Students at an L.A. Unified middle school work on an assignment.
Students at an L.A. Unified middle school work on an assignment.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

Slightly fewer California public school students were suspended or expelled during the 2016-17 than the year before, newly-released statewide figures show.

The decrease comes as a range of education leaders, from local school board members to state officials, seek to curb disciplinary practices that remove children from school. Since the 2011-12 school year, this effort has helped decrease the number of suspensions by 46 percent.

But students in some racial groups continue to face harsher discipline at higher rates.

The disparity is most evident among black students. Last school year, 9.7 percent of black students in California schools were suspended at least once, well above the suspension rates among white students (3.1 percent), Latino students (3.7 percent) or the state as a whole (3.6 percent).

Overall, educators handed out 67,945 suspensions to black students in 2016-17. That figure nearly matches the number of suspensions white children received (76,838), even though in California, white students outnumber black students by a 3-to-1 margin.

"Disparities in suspension rates among student groups are disturbing and needed to be addressed," said State Schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson in a statement. "We have much work to do. We need to do more, and we need to do better."

But Torlakson also lauded the overall decrease in suspension rates, including among black students.

Suspension rates among African-American and American Indian students dropped while other groups held steady. Overall, rates of suspension among black students have dropped from 2012-13, when 12.7 percent were suspended at least once.

Among the biggest drivers of the improvement is even fewer suspensions for an offense called “willful defiance” — which some advocates say has become a catch-all term for students who are simply being disruptive.

"Efforts by educators all over the state to find better ways to engage students in learning and address behavior problems are paying off,” Torlakson's statement read. “The bottom line is that students have to be in class to learn, to succeed, to develop their potential, and to fulfill their dreams."

Researchers and civil rights advocates argue disciplinary action that removes students from school often does more harm than good.

Swayed by their arguments, state lawmakers have sought to curb the use of "willful defiance" as a justification for suspension; districts like Los Angeles Unified have even banned suspensions for defiance outright.

Some teachers have chafed at L.A. Unified's policy, saying the district's ban on suspensions for defiance was not paired with training for teachers in alternative ways of maintaining order in classrooms and hallways.

Black students were suspended for defiance at a lower rate this year — though they are still being suspended for defiance at rates twice that of white or Latino children.