Major legislative changes coming out of Sacramento and a shift in how school districts approach student discipline have led to a 33-percent drop in out-of-school suspensions statewide during the latest three-year period tracked by the state Department of Education.
And Orange County’s 28 school districts, with a few exceptions, have followed the trend, according to a Voice of OC analysis of data from the Department of Education and the UCLA Civil Rights Project covering the 2011-12 through 2013-2014 school years.
The 16 county school districts that exceeded the statewide average included Huntington Beach Union High, which saw a 64 percent drop in suspensions. In Santa Ana Unified, the largest district in the county, suspensions dropped by 58 percent between 2011 and 2015.
But the analysis revealed two notable outliers — Anaheim Union High and Tustin Unified. From the 2011-12 school year to 2013-14, suspensions spiked more than 200 percent in Anaheim Union High, the county’s second largest district, and 45 percent in Tustin Unified.
It’s unclear why Anaheim and Tustin are going in the opposite direction from most other OC school districts. But we can consider a few factors that come into play.
Anaheim Union High is the only district in the county that saw increases in every category of suspensions. The largest increases were seen in suspensions for violence with injury — from 42 to 684; for drug offenses, which spiked from 74 to 462; and for willful defiance, which went from 332 to 487.
Suspensions increased in every category but weapons in Tustin Unified. The largest jump was in suspensions for willful defiance, which went from zero during the 2011-12 school year to 259 in 2013-14.
The increase in the two districts in willful defiance suspensions — a loose term for acting out in class — is surprising given that they have been dropping rapidly statewide.
Countywide, suspensions decreased in every category, with the 53 percent drop in willful defiance suspensions being the largest. Suspensions for violence with injury was the only category to increase, with 17 percent more suspensions in 2014 than 2011.
The increase was driven by a handful of schools where violent incidents are increasing: Anaheim Union High, Tustin Unified, Brea Olinda Unified, Los Alamitos Unified and La Habra City Elementary.
Who is being suspended?
Nationwide, minority students, English learners and students with disabilities have the highest rates of suspension.
A 2015 Report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project highlighting the “school discipline gap” found that in 2011-12, black students were suspended at the highest rates — 23 percent — followed by disabled students at 18 percent, American Indians at 12 percent, and Latinos and English learners at 11 percent. Meanwhile, 7 percent of white students were suspended that year.
This remains true in Orange County, where Latino and black students tend to be suspended disproportionate to their share of the student body.
Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson of Sacramento, who authored a bill to limit how schools use willful defiance to suspend students, argues that disruption suspensions have been disproportionately used to discipline minority students.
“Kids who have been suspended or expelled are two times more likely to drop out and five times more likely to turn to crime. Rather than kicking students out of school, we need to keep young people in school on track to graduate, and out of the criminal justice system,” Dickinson said in a statement.
Three major school districts – Los Angeles Unified, San Francisco Unified and Oakland Unified – recently banned willful defiance suspensions.
The chart below shows the discipline gap between students at five Orange County high schools with the largest number of suspensions.
Data between 2014 and 2016 will be especially instructive in determining the effect of recent changes to state and local policies regarding school suspensions.
California’s new school funding formula, called the Local Control Funding Formula, was adopted in 2014 and requires districts to fund efforts to improve school climate and bases funding on attendance. It has pushed many districts to try to reduce suspensions.
The law proposed by Dickinson, which eliminates willful defiance as a reason to suspend students in kindergarten through the third grade, went into effect in 2015.
A number of districts have also adopted alternative discipline programs, such as restorative justice approaches, that advocates say is changing the relationship between at-risk students and their school.
Are you a current high school student in Anaheim Union High or Tustin Unified? Please email Thy Vo about your experience with school discipline policies.
Email Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.