The numbers were startling.
Out-of-school suspensions had shot up 200 percent in the Anaheim Union High School District between the 2011 and 2014 school years, according to data reported by the district to the California Department of Education.
The data showed unusual increases in the number of suspensions for violence without injury and suspensions for willful defiance, whereas most schools statewide have steadily reduced suspensions in those categories in recent years.
The numbers, however, were wrong.
District staff now say that a lack of training and software complications during that time period caused the district to over-count suspensions, making much of the suspension data for that time period unreliable.
But they never told anyone about the problems until a Voice of OC reporter asked. This apparent lack of concern about producing accurate data is inexcusable, said Daniel Losen, director of the UCLA Center on Civil Rights Remedies and a researcher who focuses on school discipline policies nationwide.
The UCLA Center relied on the state data to compile recent reports about discipline policies statewide, including breakdowns of suspensions based on race, and offense and type.
“It’s a pretty serious thing to suspend a child out of school and to say they don’t have good records, it’s an abrogation of their responsibility to the public to not just report accurate information,” said Losen.
And the public will never have a clear picture of discipline in the district for those years. District officials say the data problems were the result of poor training and new software, errors that can’t be corrected, according the district’s director of assessment and evaluation, Stephanie Henry.
“We’re making an effort right now to make the data right. As for the past data…to go back and re-link incidents from two, three years ago would be almost impossible,” Henry said.
Data Important for Reform Efforts
In recent years, school discipline policies have become a focal point for education reform advocates who say punitive discipline erodes students’ motivation and negatively impacts their attitudes toward their school.
In too many schools, they say, suspension and expulsion are go-to solutions for administrators, rather than methods that address students’ underlying problems and return them to the classroom.
But in Anaheim keeping suspension data wasn’t a priority until recently, said Assistant Superintendent of Education Services Jaron Fried.
“We were struggling [with the budget] as a state at the time, so we had fewer people doing more work,” said Fried. After Rick Martens, the administrator overseeing the data, retired, the interim director who replaced him “was just trying to maintain the ship – [suspension data] was not a high priority.”
Officials point to a rocky transition to a new student information software program in 2012-13 as one of the main reasons why the suspension data went awry.
Because of confusion about how the new system records suspensions, many assistant principals were over reporting. For example, the state collects data based on the number of incidents that result in a suspension. If three students were involved in a fight, under the district’s new software, school officials were reporting a suspension for each student involved, rather than reporting a single incident.
Henry said that the data examined by Voice of OC also didn’t include in-school suspensions, a method the district had used in the past to remove students from the classroom but still keep them on campus. The district has since eliminated those almost entirely, she said.
Despite knowing what went wrong, district officials are unable to show what the trend in suspensions looks like between 2011 and 2014. Numbers from two school years – 2012-13 and 2013-14 – aren’t comparable because of major changes in how districts reported data to the state.
Because the errors occurred in how the suspensions were first recorded by school officials, the district has no way of knowing which suspensions should be linked to others, Henry said.
School districts also aren’t allowed to change the data once it is certified by the state.
The district does have reports based on the number of students who have been suspended or expelled at least once, broken down by each school. Those figures show the number of suspended students increasing from 1,713 in 2013-14 to 1,900 in 2014-15. Expulsions decreased over that same time period from 56 to 41.
Shanna Egans, who now oversees the suspension data, said data for the 2015-16 school year will be accurate and show a significant decrease in suspensions.
“There’s not a lot we can do, all we can do is figure out the why,” said Egans. “We’re confident that when the 2015-16 school year is reported, you’re going to see an even greater decrease.”
No Public Discussion
The erroneous data has never been discussed by the school board at meetings or explained in public.
Correcting the data and clearing the air would be in the district’s favor, school board trustee Al Jabbar said, especially as the district faces criticism from charter school advocates.
“If this is the only data that we have that a parent who has kids or wants to put kids in our schools could look at…we want to make sure they know we are revamping the system,” said Jabbar, who became aware of the issue after reading the Voice of OC article and asking staff about its data. “I know [the suspension rate] is not 200 percent…and we want to correct the data because it’s in our favor.”
Losen said that while it’s to be understood that data is not always perfect, the district should have made a greater effort to correct inaccuracies in the data and notify the public.
“This is an important indicator, it’s part of [budgeting] requirements now that districts are forced to look at school climate and discipline. So how is it that the district is so incompetent in their reporting of the data?” said Losen. “Is that okay with test scores or graduation rates?”
District officials say that despite the data errors, their suspension rate is below five percent and they are fully supportive of new programs to creative restorative, rather than punitive, discipline policies.
In addition to a strategy that focuses on giving students positive feedback and strengthening student-teacher relationships, each school site now has full-time staff dedicated to working with teachers to intervene in discipline issues and counsel at-risk students.
The district is also piloting an alternative suspension program called Pathways to Success, which requires students to complete an educational program with counseling services. By completing the program, the student does not receive a suspension on their permanent record.
Asked how the average parent will be able to gauge the success of discipline policies without accurate data, Superintendent Michael Matsuda said most parents and citizens don’t rely on data and are more likely to pick up the phone or ask their Parent Teacher Association to learn about their school’s discipline policies.
Matsuda said giving too much weight to suspension and expulsion data doesn’t provide a true picture of how school climate and the experience of students is changing. Also important, he says, are other indicators like graduation rates, dropout rates, and instructional practices used by teachers.
“The fact that our data made us an outlier — it led to this conversation. Hopefully one of these outcomes is not to believe what you see in the data – it’s a much more complex issue,” Matsuda said.
Contact Thy Vo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.