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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, to discipline in the classroom. In California schools last year, records show there were 700,000 suspensions and more than 18,000 expulsions. Students being removed at the highest rates were black and Latino. Now, the Justice Department is getting involved, exploring school discipline as a civil rights issue.

Over the past five years, the city of Richmond, California, has been changing disciplinary policies in its schools as Youth Radio's Robyn Gee reports.

ROBYN GEE, BYLINE: Robert is a talkative sixth grader in Richmond. He's been suspended three times.

ROBERT: Sometimes when you get in trouble, if you really, really think about it, you're just going to say, wow, why I did that? If I get suspended one more time, I might get expelled.

GEE: Getting expelled may sound extreme for a kid as young as Robert. But data in California from a few years ago show almost half of expulsions fell into vague categories, including defying authority and disruption of school activities. Some teachers say suspending students from school doesn't change the behavior. It just puts kids further behind. And that can make it extra hard for little kids who rack up multiple suspensions while they are still in elementary school.

MEGAN MACPHERSON: If I'm in the middle of a math unit and students are gone, that's five new objectives that they don't get to learn. That's usually the most stressful part is catching up a student.

GEE: That's Megan Macpherson, an elementary schoolteacher in Richmond.

MACPHERSON: And so, sometimes I really disagree with suspensions. In past years, it has been really hard to keep students invested in school because once they fall behind, they don't - it's embarrassing to be behind their peers, and so it's almost too much.

GEE: Macpherson's concern about discipline and student investment is something you hear a lot from adults in this district. Many of her students, if they do stay invested, will end up at Richmond High School.

KIBBY KLEIMAN: Vovolet(ph), is your mom here?

GEE: Assistant Principal Kibby Kleiman walks through the hallways after the final bell. His job is to handle discipline at Richmond High School. And this year, he's paying special attention to a small group of students who are repeat offenders. They've been nicknamed Kibby's Kids.

As a tall white guy, he stands out. Most of the students are black and Latino.

KLEIMAN: I'll be back in like 10 minutes.

GEE: Historically, this school had high rates of suspension, expulsion and dropout. Suspensions were common for things as minor as being tardy to class. Worried that these punishments were keeping too many kids out of the classroom, Richmond High made a plan to reduce those numbers.

KLEIMAN: So, let's say in the past, there were two kids who squared off and one pushed the other in the classroom. Ordinarily, we'd look and say physical force. I mean, a fight can be - it's supposed to be an automatic five-day suspension. We absolutely would have sent the students home.

GEE: Now, Kleiman says those same students would stay in school, talk through the problem and agree on a solution.

KLEIMAN: Now, what we do is put that back in the hands of teachers and say to the teachers: You're the first step. What do you want to do to adjudicate this?

GEE: Critics of taking a softer approach to discipline say dropping traditional punishments altogether could compromise school safety. Ken Trump is director of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services. He says reforms need to be balanced.

KEN TRUMP: Putting an emphasis on restorative justice and prevention programs only on one hand is no more appropriate than putting all of your emphasis or most of your emphasis on security and emergency preparedness on the other hand.

GEE: Trump says zero tolerance policies have gotten a bad name because of high-profile cases where administrators lacked common sense. Many of these stories make the news, such as cases of 5-year-olds being suspended from school or even arrested for things as minor as swearing. Trump said that's not the norm and administrators are responsible for evaluating real risk, like kids bringing guns to school.

TRUMP: Most school administrators do not get up in the morning, go to work, throw a dart at a dartboard with a bunch of students' names and say, I'm going to ruin that student's life.

GEE: Nonetheless, administrators at Richmond High feel their new flexibility will help them. Physical safety issues are still dealt with by staff, but for lesser offenses, the school has adopted a program called Youth Court. Peers listen to both sides and come up with consequences other than suspension.

NESTOR GUZMAN: We have been gathered here today to discuss the case against my client. He has admitted that leaving the school campus was wrong. And to restore the damages, he is willing to receive Saturday School. He left to buy...

GEE: After a presentation by the student's defense advocate Nestor Guzman and a student prosecutor, the jury, comprised of six seniors, comes to a decision.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, so we decided that you will have to write Mr. Kleiman an apology letter and you will have after-school tutoring with Mr. Hastings.

GEE: And serve on the jury for the next Youth Court case, a welcome alternative to a suspension for a student who had already racked up 43 absences this school year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This court is now adjourned.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL)

GEE: Since Richmond, California schools adopted Youth Court and other new approaches to discipline, fewer kids have been suspended. Since 2005, the district cut suspensions in half.

For NPR News, I'm Robyn Gee.

SIEGEL: That story was produced by Youth Radio.

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