Scott Carpenter
The Union Democrat

"Isn’t what we want to do is change negative into positive behavior? If that’s true then we need to do a little more work, because just suspending or expelling kids excludes them from an opportunity to improve.”

— Margie Bulkin, Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools

A shift toward softer forms of school discipline is driving down the numbers of middle and high school students being suspended or expelled, according to California Education Department data and interviews with Tuolumne County educators.

The decline comes in response to a handful of state initiatives and federal laws or directives that reflect a broader conversation about discipline, one that, increasingly, embraces a consensus that taking kids out of school does little to reform the behavior that gets them suspended or expelled in the first place.

“When there’s a discipline issue, there’s more to it than just willful defiance,” said Cathy Parker, associate superintendent of education services at the county schools office.

Together with the sharing of school services and the 2013 enactment of AB 1729, a state bill that required schools to exhaust alternatives to suspensions and expulsion before exercising those options, Parker said, “it was everything coming together and realizing: we do have to look at alternatives.”

During the 2011-12 school year Tuolumne County schools suspended 640 students. By the 2014-15 school year, the latest for which data on discipline is available, 373 were suspended.

Expulsion had also declined. From 46 during the 2011-12 school year, the number of expulsions dropped to 15 and by 2014-15.

California’s overall numbers were lower as well. Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the suspension total and rates declined from 366,629 to 243,603 and for expulsions, 9,553 to 5,592.

“Isn’t what we want to do is change negative into positive behavior?” said Margie Bulkin, the county Superintendent of Schools. “If that’s true then we need to do a little more work, because just suspending or expelling kids excludes them from an opportunity to improve.”

Educators agree the motivation for change came from a gradual realization that there was too much latitude in existing laws and guidelines.

In Tuolumne County, for example, the leading cause of suspensions is disruption or willful defiance, which might involve a student who shouts during class or who gets into a fight with another student.

Those behaviors fall under a category in California’s Education Code that allows for broad interpretation. It isn’t too difficult for teachers and principals to take that authority a step too far.

“I think it was overused,” said Wynette Hilton, principal of Tenaya Elementary in Groveland. “You can have that behavior every single day in any classroom, and depending on how it’s pushed you can end up with a suspension, you can end up with a student arguing with a teacher.”

There has also been concern that such Education Code provisions are being used to target black and minority students disproportionately.

In August 2015, educators recoiled when a review of federal data from 13 Southern states showed black students were suspended or expelled at rates up to five times higher than whites. The study showed schools in Texas, where suspension and expulsion requirements were more explicit, whites were expelled at higher rates.

The impact of that and related studies has not been forgotten.

Pat Chabot, superintendent of the Sonora Union High School District, said that although district leaders began to change the way they approached suspensions about 2.5 years ago, when he became principal, that study and others had helped to cement a consensus.

“Sending a kid home doesn’t really solve anything,” he said. “It actually makes it worse.”

In response came laws, state assembly bills, and even guidelines issued by the White House.

Effective Jan. 1, 2013, Assembly Bill 1729 required that alternative means of discipline fail before resorting to suspensions.

The bill also required better documentation of steps taken to reform a student’s behavior, a provision that aimed to provide more information to parents concerned their child’s school had not taken all the actions it could.

Then, in January 2014, the Obama administration issued guidelines that recommended schools resort to law enforcement only after all other measures had been exhausted, a response to a rise in zero-tolerance policies.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged schools to look to alternative disciplinary means, describing in a letter to school officials the “tremendous costs” of removing students from school.

In September 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 420, which forbade schools from expelling students for willful defiance or disruption and from suspending kindergarten through third-grade students for those reasons.

School districts went farther. In May 2015, Oakland Unified School District, with more than 100 schools and some 46,000 students, extended the elimination of willful defiance as a reason for suspensions through high school.

New programs were born. Collectively, they aimed to foster positive behavior and reform errant behavior through a close examination of underlying issues, from malnourishment to trauma.

At Tenaya Elementary in Groveland, a U.S. Department of Education program called Positive Behavior Intervention Support, or PBIS, went a long way toward reshaping the way teachers approached conflict among students, said Hilton, the Tenaya principal.

“A lot of the training is getting to know your kids,” she said, describing how PBIS asked teachers to fully explore a student’s motivation for bad behavior before resorting to discipline. “It’s really determining why are they doing it and how can you redirect that.”

At Sonora High School, where the number of suspensions was cut in half between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school year, accounting for much of the steep decrease countywide, discussion-based interventions have largely replaced the traditional strict suspension or expulsion policies.

When a student quarrels with another student, for example, rather than packing them off to their homes for one day to up to about two weeks, the principal or assistant principal will gather the two students in a room and moderate a discussion.

Sometimes, that’s impossible because emotions are still too high. But on many occasions it is a simple way to begin to resolve underlying issues and prepare students for a quick return to class.

“It’s kind of like President Obama’s beer summit,” Chabot said. “We get them together and talk it out, and try and see if you can see the other person’s point of view.”

Chabot added that the school has also relied increasingly on crisis counselors, who work explicitly on non-academic issues, such as mental health or trauma.

Summerville Union High School District has recently updated its discipline policy for the 2016-17 school year to formalize its Saturday school, which has helped strengthen a “discipline matrix” and given educators a chance to be more engaged with students, said Diana Harford, principal of Summerville High School and Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy.

Tuolumne County schools will likely never see the end of expulsions or suspensions.

The Education Code requires a recommendation of an expulsion if a student possesses or sells a firearm; brandishes a knife; sells a controlled substance; commits a sexual assault or possesses an explosive. And some provisions on suspensions are similarly strict.