A boy stabbed Winter Hall’s daughter in the face with a pencil last fall. But the first grader – yes, a 6-year-old – wasn’t expelled or even suspended. All he got was a lecture from the school’s principal, and some counseling later on.
How is that possible in this era of idiotic zero-tolerance policies? Barely a week passes without news of a child being suspended or expelled over some trivial act, like making a “gun” out of a Pop Tart or his thumb and forefinger.
Yet a child can viciously assault another child – in front of parents and a teacher, no less – and get off with a stern talking-to? How?
Because the school had too many suspensions on the books already, that’s how.
I heard Hall’s story last month at West Athens Elementary School in South Los Angeles. Hall is a leader of Aguilas de West Athens, a parents group she co-founded to help address the school’s bullying problem. Before Hall and other parents began to organize, they ran into a brick wall of bureaucratic indifference. Only when the group threatened to use California’s landmark “parent trigger” law to force changes at the school did the principal finally start taking the complaints seriously.
West Athens is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation. L.A. Unified reported 11,163 fewer out-of-school suspensions in 2012-13 than the prior year. Overall, the district boasted a suspension rate of just 1.5 percent, compared with 8 percent in 2007-08. Across the state, suspensions fell from 709,596 in 2011-12 to 609,471 in 2012-13, according to the state Department of Education. Expulsions fell from 9,758 to 8,562 during the same period.
Are students better behaved than they were just a few years ago? Don’t be ridiculous. Suspensions and expulsions are down because administrators aren’t suspending or expelling students. This is not a cause for celebration.
Here’s what happened: In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began to take an interest in school discipline policies. Some people – activists, academics, and lawyers for the most part – had noticed that black and Latino kids were being suspended or expelled at much higher rates than white and Asian kids.
What might account for such a disparity? If you said students’ ill behavior, go stand in the corner. No, the federal government, in its wisdom, concluded that the disparity was most likely the result of official discrimination.
And in January, it told school districts that they might be breaking federal law even if they had no intent to discriminate – or even if they were disciplining troublemakers without regard to race or ethnicity.
Got that? So if you’re a principal at a school such as West Athens, where 71 percent of your students are Hispanic, 28 percent are black, and there isn’t a white kid for miles, you should think twice about disciplining your kids – or the feds might find you guilty of unlawful discrimination.
L.A. Unified is also the first district in California to eliminate “willful defiance” as a reason for suspending disruptive students. Critics, mostly lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union and sundry civil rights activists, argue that “willful defiance” is too vague and gives principals too much leeway.
Would it be rude to point out that those same activists also say zero-tolerance policies give principals too little leeway? No matter. They’re pushing the Legislature to pass a bill that would remove “willful defiance” from school’s discipline codes.
Last week, the UCLA Civil Rights Project released an analysis lauding the sharp decline in out-of-school suspensions around the state, but especially in Southern California.
“These are unquestionably positive results,” Daniel J. Losen, the project’s director, told the Los Angeles Times. “California school districts are beginning to understand that extreme suspension-first policies neither improve school climate nor boost academic achievement.”
Oh, the results are questionable, all right. What school districts clearly understand is they’ll face heightened scrutiny and possible sanctions from federal authorities – perhaps even lawsuits – if they don’t fall into line.
So it’s no surprise to hear stories like Hall’s, which are impossible to confirm officially because of student privacy laws. But perverse priorities reap perverse consequences. School administrators, faced with mandates to slash suspension rates, will do what bureaucrats always do – take the path of least resistance.
Many California districts are experimenting with alternatives to out-of-school suspensions. “In-school” suspensions and programs that divert troublemakers into special classrooms might make sense if they lead to fewer disruptions and safer schools.
But if the goal is to produce numbers on a spreadsheet that satisfy some activists’ idea of “fairness” and “equity,” that’s a true injustice to children.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.