Santa Ana Unified School District officials — who as recently as five years ago were heavily criticized for being too quick to kick kids out of school for behavior problems — are now being credited for a steep decline in out-of-school suspensions.

While school suspensions and expulsions declined statewide by more than 33 percent between the 2011-12 and 2014-15 school years, in Santa Ana suspensions dropped by 58 percent during the same time period,

The decline is due not only to a statewide shift in attitudes among educators about school discipline, but also a robust local effort by parents, students and community activists to push the school district to devote more funding to restorative justice and other support programs for students.

Suspensions have declined by 58 percent, according to data from the California Department of Education.
Suspensions have declined by 58 percent, according to data from the California Department of Education.

“A suspension is an indicator of a failing school,” said Abraham Medina, program director for Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, a group focused on empowering young men through organizing around issues like education, juvenile justice, restorative justice practices and deportation.

The largest decline was seen in suspensions for “willful defiance,” a loosely defined category for disruptive behaviors that advocates have long said were disproportionately meted out to minorities. Those suspensions dropped from 3,300 in the 2011-12 school year to 721 in 2014-15.

Advocates like Medina say harsh disciplinary practices are another cog in the “school to prison to deportation pipeline,” a punitive criminal justice system that entangles youth rather than routing them back onto paths to success.

“Students who have been suspended multiple times are more likely to be transferred to a continuation school or expelled, or to have contact with law enforcement,” Medina said.

One of the factors contributing to the drop in suspensions among Santa Ana Unified schools is a district-wide embrace of the concept of restorative justice, which is the idea that rather than punishing a poorly behaving student by kicking him out of school, both the student and the community at large are better served by keeping him in school and requiring him to make amends to those he’s wronged.

So instead of being suspended, a student might be asked to write a letter, begin checking in with a mentor, or do community service to give back to their school.

“[Punitive discipline] practices lead you further and further way from your community. Restorative justice is a different path, but one that brings you back into the classroom and community,” Medina said.

Part of a Nationwide Trend

The decline in suspensions among Santa Ana Unified schools mirrors a nationwide recognition that teachers and administrators disproportionately target the harshest methods of school discipline toward minority groups.

Consider that in California 17 percent of African American students were suspended at least once during the 2009-10 school year, according to a 2012 study of more than 500 California school districts by the UCLA Civil Rights Project. The rates for Native American and Latino students were 11 percent and 7 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, only 5 percent of whites were suspended during that school year, according to the study.

Credit: UCLA Center for Civil Rights

In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan urged educators to move away from suspension, expulsion and arrests as disciplinary tools as much as possible, in favor of alternatives that keep students in class.

Major changes in California in legislation and school funding are also encouraging districts to find alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.

Assembly Bill 420, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, eliminated the use of willful defiance as a reason for which schools can expel students, and prohibits suspensions for that reason among students between kindergarten and the third grade.

California’s new school funding system, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which was implemented in 2013, also makes school climate and discipline one of its eight priorities that school districts must track, including rates of suspension and expulsion.

Through the LCFF, Santa Ana Unified, where 91 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch and 60 percent are English language learners, received an additional $56.3 million in funds from the state in 2014-15, which has enabled the district to invest in restorative justice programs at a dozen schools.

Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Doreen Lohnes says Santa Ana Unified began making major changes to its school discipline strategy in 2011, when it implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, or PBIS.

The strategy focuses on using positive reinforcements and rewards to motivate good behavior from students, a strategy district officials have credited for reducing suspensions and strengthening relationships between students and teachers.

The district also added additional counseling and mental health services, Lohnes said.

A Push From Community Activists

As the district began implementing LCFF, school officials heard from a large contingent of parents and students, organized primarily by the group Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, calling on the district to reform its discipline practices and direct more funding toward restorative justice.

It was part of a two-year organizing effort by activists who visited school sites across the state where restorative justice practices were already being implemented, said Rafael Solorzano, then the director of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.

Solorzano and other advocates felt that while PBIS was working in some schools, implementation was inconsistent, and that district was reducing suspensions for minor offenses but was still failing to reach students who were most at risk of dropping out.

The activists’ narrative focused on connecting school suspensions to larger trends of incarceration and deportation among poor Latino youth.

“When we started talking about it like that, from a systems level, that didn’t settle well with [district officials],” Solorzano said. “They were like, ‘we’re not a part of that.’ But all these institutions are part of it.”

In the beginning, John Palacio was the only school board member to publicly endorse their platform. But with the election of Valerie Amezcua in 2014, along with persistent organizing by the community, they were able to get buy-in from the rest of the board, Medina said.

“Sometimes there were meetings where [school officials] were upset that we were publicly putting out numbers — they felt it was a smear campaign at first,” said Solorzano.

Over time, Solorzano said, district officials and school board members became more receptive and the board ultimately voted to direct $7 million of the new money toward such programs, and established a school climate committee of parents, community groups and district officials.

Lohnes says since then the district has been holding ongoing trainings for teachers, staff and parents in restorative practices.

The district now contracts with community groups such as Boys and Men of Color and Project Kinship, a group serving former gang members and the formerly incarcerated, to run mentorship and restorative justice programs.

“In districts where they have done this for years, students say, ‘I feel welcome, I feel heard, I feel part of something and I feel connected,’” Lohnes said.

Amezcua, who is also an Orange County Probation officer, said securing funding for restorative justice programs came down to parents and activists articulating their needs and educating their elected officials.

“They don’t want to be kicking kids out of school, but there was nobody there to feed them this information,” said Amezcua. “I say to parents, ‘you need to come to the board meeting.’ And they came with 100 parents.”

Amezcua acknowledges that the district’s efforts have a long way to go, including training teachers at the elementary school level, where suspension rates are comparatively low, but interest among teachers is high.

She recalled a conversation with a student at Lorin Griset Academy continuation school who joined one of the first restorative justice programs in the district.

“He said, ‘I would be dead right now if it wasn’t for Joven Noble,’ and the hairs on my arms stood up,” Amezcua said. “He may not go to UCLA, but maybe he will go to Santa Ana College, and decide to be a mechanic — that’s success.”

Contact Thy Vo at or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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