Opinion: Rest of the state should emulate Oakland school innovation

As the CEO of a health foundation, I’m quite familiar with the many ways that schools affect the health of children, or at least I thought I was.

But in recent months, community activists have schooled me about a problem that wasn’t on my radar: the impact of extreme school discipline policies on the health and opportunities of California youth.

The week of Oct 1-7 is the National Week of Action on school discipline, taking place in 25 cities across the U.S., including Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento and Fresno.  It’s a time to ask why harsh school discipline is on the rise across the nation, and whether these punitive approaches are really the best way to handle misbehavior.

This issue came to our foundation’s attention when we asked parents and community leaders in disadvantaged neighborhoods to tell us about roadblocks faced by youth. Parents pointed to policies that were becoming more severe and extreme, saying their sons and daughters were being suspended, expelled and sometimes even arrested for things that used to be handled by the principal or a school counselor.

For example, in Los Angeles, we heard about police handcuffing students and giving them $250 truancy tickets for arriving just a few minutes late to school because city buses were running behind schedule.

Parents and community leaders were right; this is a big problem. In recent years, California schools issued more than 700,000 suspensions a year, including 25,000 in Alameda County.

And the reasons are not what you might think. Of course, we should remove students from school for serious offenses such as weapons possession, but the majority of California suspensions are not due to violence or drugs.

They’re the result of talking back to teachers, shoving in the hallways and other kinds of youthful misbehavior, according to state data.  

These students were punished under the authority of well-intentioned policies that have gotten way off track. In the wake of the tragic shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School, school districts made it much easier to suspend and expel students because they thought that approach would make schools safer and more successful. It hasn’t.

“There are no data showing that out-of-school suspension or expulsion reduce rates of disruption or improve school climate,” a 2010 Southern Poverty Law Center study said.

In other words, parents intuitively understood what many studies have shown: you can’t suspend your way to school success.

These harsh policies stand in the way of opportunity for children who need it most.

Studies have consistently found that poor children, particularly those who are African American and Latino, are overrepresented in school suspensions.

A sad case in point can be found in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where an African American boy attending middle school faces a 32 percent chance of suspension, versus a rate of 3 percent for a white girl, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center study.

Amid these sobering statistics, there is good news: there are a growing number of proven and cost-effective alternatives to extreme school discipline, and Oakland is showing the way.

At Cole School in Oakland, one such program led to a remarkable 87 percent drop in suspensions in a single year, a UC Berkeley study found.

The California Endowment is now supporting an ambitious effort to replicate this success at Oakland’s Castlemont Community of Small Schools.

The success of these programs is rooted in behavioral health principles and practical school discipline that hold kids accountable without disrupting their education.

These prevention-oriented programs teach responsibility, mutual respect and conflict resolution skills that improve learning environments and help students succeed.

So as we get back to school this fall, let’s get back to basics and invest in what works. I urge local and statewide education policy leaders to follow the lead of innovators in Oakland to embrace these common-sense discipline approaches, for the good of our children and the future prosperity of California.

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