Black students attending Folsom Cordova Unified schools were nearly five times as likely to be suspended as white students in the 2009-10 school year.
Sacramento City Unified, Natomas Unified, Twin Rivers Unified and Elk Grove Unified all suspended black students at a rate three times higher than they suspended white students that year.
Across the state, nearly one of every five African American students and one in 14 Latino students were suspended at least once in 2009-10, compared with one in 17 white students and one in 33 Asian American students, according to a report released last week from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.
The findings are part of a broader discussion about whether schools are suspending students too much. More than 400,000 students 7.1 percent of the student population in California were suspended at least once during the 2009-10 school year, according to the report.
Some legislators are troubled by the numbers. Six bills that aim to lower suspension and expulsion rates are being considered by state lawmakers.
Almost every Sacramento-area school official surveyed said their district is making an effort to curb suspensions, regardless of race.
"We want to keep our students in schools and in classrooms," said Janie DeArcos, assistant superintendent of Folsom Cordova Unified. "We can't even attempt to attack the academic achievement gap that occurs in schools (otherwise)."
Although the state mandates suspensions in serious cases, including assault, robbery, possession of a weapon and drug dealing, most suspensions in 2009-10 were for minor infractions such as disrespect, defiance and dress-code violations, according to the report.
"There are better alternatives to out-of-school suspension," said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, a research group based at UCLA that focuses on increasing educational opportunities for minority students. "It hurts people of color most of all."
So why are black and Latino students suspended more often than white students?
The report, which analyzed U.S. Department of Education data, drew no conclusions. But Losen said he does not believe poverty is the reason.
He said other studies have shown that the gap between the suspension rates of whites and minorities can be found at schools in communities of every income level.
Losen, a former teacher, stopped short of saying racism contributed to the disparity, but did say that teachers and administrators sometimes treat students differently subconsciously.
"They may not single out African American males, but there may be societal bias that makes a person think that if there is an African American boy in the hallway he is breaking a rule," Losen said.
The problem is worse in schools with fewer minorities, said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, a Bay Area nonprofit that researches educational issues affecting minority and low-income students. Ramanathan, also a former teacher, said suspensions can result from cultural misunderstanding.
"What is popping up as behavior outside the norm in a specific school may not be outside the norm in a different setting," he said.
Losen calls the number of suspensions in California alarming. In the 10 California school districts where students were at greatest risk of suspension, nearly one of every four students was suspended at least once that school year.
"It suggests that there are some schools or districts that have gone down a zero-tolerance track, when really there are kids that deserve a second chance," Losen said.
Samuel Jackman Middle School in the Elk Grove Unified district is among the schools that have rethought the zero-policy stance and subsequently saw suspension rates fall and achievement scores rise.
In 2009, the school had the highest number of suspensions in Northern California: 1,224.
Violence and drugs accounted for 507 suspensions; 300 were for threatening to fight.
That year 52 percent of the school's black students were suspended at least once, compared with 25 percent of its white students, according to federal data.
Jackman's principal had instituted a zero-tolerance policy designed to put an early lid on trouble.
That year, the school's Academic Performance Index score was 655.
In the years since, the school's leadership changed and Elk Grove Unified instituted a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support Program at Jackman and five other schools, said Carl Steinauer, director of Student Support and Health Services for the district.
So far this school year, Samuel Jackman has had 465 suspensions. Its API score rose last year to 674.
Overall, Elk Grove Unified has reduced suspensions by 22 percent in the last two years and reduced the number of African American students suspended by 7.5 percent, Steinauer said.
This year, the district is retaining some students it previously would have suspended or expelled, he said.
Students found in possession of marijuana or under the influence of alcohol more than once are placed in independent study and counseled about drug dependency and violence prevention, among other issues.
In some California districts, suspension rates are exacerbated by staffing cuts, as well as the emphasis on raising test scores, said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Association.
"What has happened in school districts as they deal with the budgetary crisis is they aren't dealing nearly enough with the social fiber of the school," Vogel said. "One of the challenges of faculties is how to keep a student in school and, at the same time, hold students accountable for inappropriate behavior. In general, teachers are doing the best we can under very difficult circumstances."
Officials at Folsom Cordova and San Juan Unified say they also are using positive behavioral reinforcement to try to reduce suspension rates. San Juan has had its program in place for nearly a decade, while Folsom has been focusing on the issue for two years.
San Juan Unified has lowered suspension numbers by about 40 percent in four years. Intervention support teams at each school look at incident data and office referrals to try to determine where problems lie, said Linda Bessire, the district's director of pupil personnel services.
Folsom Cordova is still trying to gain traction. The district, which had a 5.7 percent suspension rate in 2009-10, reported a decrease of 0.1 percent last school year. It lowered the number of African American students suspended by 0.5 percent.
Most of the Sacramento region's 15 largest districts suspended black and Latino students at higher rates than white students in 2009-10, according to Civil Rights Project data. The largest disparity between Latinos and whites was in the Roseville Joint Union High School District, which suspended 7.1 percent of Latino students compared with 3.7 percent of white students.
Asian American students were less likely than white students to be suspended at all large districts in the region.
Editor's note: This story was changed April 25 to correct that Janie DeArcos is assistant superintendent of Folsom Cordova Unified.