California Forum

School suspension rules hurt our most vulnerable students. That’s about to change

Growing up as a kid in East Los Angeles, most of my classmates, like me, lived in poor neighborhoods and experienced more trauma as children than many adults endure in their lives. While I was in middle school, I lost nine classmates to violence in just one year.

I often think about the administrator who tried to push me out of high school, and what my life would have been like had my parents not advocated for my right to an education. I hold that experience close, as I think about the youth I have worked with as a teacher’s assistant, teacher, principal and, now, district administrator.

After decades of work as an educator, it has become clear to me that educational environments that are punitive and reactionary cause harm to our most vulnerable students, and negatively impact the learning of all students.

Earlier this month Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 419, which will protect thousands of students from a vague, umbrella category of suspensions known as “willful defiance” and “disruption.” This bill will prohibit schools from suspending students for defiance and disruption in grades fourth through fifth permanently, and until 2025 for students in grades sixth through eighth, expanding on previous legislation that eliminated this practice for students through third grade.

This victory builds upon the work of thousands of students, parents, educators and advocates who have been working for decades to replace punitive, harsh school discipline approaches with more positive, restorative practices. The data is clear. Black, Latino, Native and LGBTQ students and students with disabilities are disproportionately targeted with these discipline practices. Whereas, in contrast, incorporating positive alternatives to suspension and restorative practices into school communities helps all students.


I’m not just talking about theory. I’ve seen it work with amazing results.

When I first started teaching at James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, we suspended more than 700 students each year. At the same time, kids who were arrested for fighting or disruption would be paraded out of the school in handcuffs, and we did punitive things like taking students to the local juvenile hall on a “field trip.” We thought this tough, zero-tolerance approach was the only way to make schools safe.

Our philosophy was: “Suspend now, ask questions later.”

Our intentions were good. We wanted to help kids. But I’ve come to learn that all of these approaches were harming our students and simply reinforcing the bad behavior we wanted to change. If we expect our young people to be “bad,” they will often prove us right. Yet when we have high expectations and support every student in a positive way, we can have a huge impact on their lives.

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After learning more about the school to prison pipeline from professional development, community advocates and straight from students, we realized we needed to try something different to create a safe and engaging environment at Garfield. We started to focus on relationships between all stakeholders in our school, engage students in decision making and invest in Positive Behavior Interventions and Support.

Within one year, we went from nearly 700 suspensions to merely one suspension, for the entire school year. At the same time, student achievement and attendance improved, college acceptance rates went up and the entire culture of the school became more positive.

I’ve come to understand that teaching kids how to behave – how to share, how to talk about feelings and how to resolve conflicts – is equally important to teaching them how to read and write. With SB 419, which will go into effect in July 2020, we now have the opportunity to give teachers tools so they can build authentic connections with each of their students without resorting to punishment.

It is only a first step, since the current law only covers grades K-8, leaving thousands of high school students vulnerable to these harmful policies. In 2013, as a part of the School Climate Bill of Rights, Los Angeles Unified School District listened to students and parents and ended willful defiance and disruption suspensions for all students. It is not only practical, but necessary to provide these protections to students in high school.

Our work is not over. We need to be bolder, more innovative and more collaborative in how we build thriving, safe, engaging schools that are proactive instead of punitive and reactionary.

When I look at the trajectory of my own life – from a student who was nearly pushed out, to a principal who issued suspensions, to an administrator who has ended these harmful practices and instituted restorative responses – I know transformation is possible. Together, we can create a safe, positive learning experience for all kids, where all truly means all.

Ramiro Rubalcaba is assistant superintendent at the Victor Valley Union High School District and former educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
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