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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn.

Back in the 1960s and '70s when I was going to school, getting suspended was a big deal. It certainly didn't happen very often. But that's not true anymore. Last year, for example, in the state of California, students got suspended more than 700,000 times. One school district decided it was getting ridiculous.

A couple of weeks ago, the board for the L.A. Unified School District passed a new resolution. They banned the use of suspensions to punish students for what's called willful defiance.

DANIEL LOSEN: Things like bringing a cellphone to school or public display of affection or truancy or repeatedly being tardy.

GOODWYN: Offenses like these accounted for nearly half of all student suspensions issued in California last year. But there's mounting research that says out-of-school suspensions puts students on the fast track to falling behind, dropping out and jail. And some groups are suspended more than others. That's today's cover story: race, class and school suspensions.

Four years ago at John Muir Middle School in South Central L.A., now 16-year-old Damien Valentine was getting into trouble.

DAMIEN VALENTINE: I was talking a little bit to another student, you know, the seventh grade doing work, talk to another student. And she asked me to move my seat.

GOODWYN: He did, but Valentine and his classmates kept talking, and his teacher grew more frustrated and wanted Valentine to move again. This time, Damien refused.

VALENTINE: I told her, I don't deserve to move my seat. Somebody else should move their seat because I already moved mine. So was it just my day to get picked on today, or what was it?

GOODWYN: Valentine and his teacher exchanged a few more words before she sent him to the dean's office. And the dean agreed Damien had been willfully defiant.

VALENTINE: He said the best thing for me was probably to take a day off of school.

GOODWYN: That was Damien Valentine's first out-of-school suspension. But after that, the suspensions kept coming. In eighth grade, Valentine had a few confrontations. Not fights, he says, just some heated words between students, but he got suspended again. Then his freshman year of high school, he was suspended from campus for three weeks, accused of helping to start a gang. Valentine believes teachers and principals have an unspoken way of seeing boys and girls of color.

VALENTINE: African-Americans always come into class late. They're always going to be disruptive, and they're just going to bring everybody else down. So as soon as you go inside the class and get in trouble, they say they already expected it. They already expected for this African-American male to act like that.

GOODWYN: There was certainly a lot of suspending going on in Damien's school back then. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in the 2008 school year, students at John Muir were suspended 325 times. And although black students made up just 23 percent of the student body, they got half the total suspensions. And that's a pattern that extends beyond L.A.

LOSEN: It's more likely your perception of a student's behavior is negative if they're a black student or a student with disabilities.

GOODWYN: Daniel Losen is an expert on out-of-school suspensions. In April, he published "Out of School and Off Track," which looked at the numbers and found astonishing suspension rates for a certain demographics.

LOSEN: One out of every four black students enrolled in our middle schools and high schools was suspended at least one time. Kids with disabilities, about one in every five; students who are English learners, especially males, in elementary school, only about 2 percent of those students are suspended out of school. But in middle school, it rises up to 16 percent.

GOODWYN: I'm looking at a chart here. And in '73, black, Latino, whites, American-Indians and Asians are all fairly bunched close together, although blacks are on top, followed by Latino. And then by the time we reach 2010, blacks have shut up much higher than everybody else. What's going on here?

LOSEN: As we've gotten to this sort of zero-tolerance mentality, that kind of policy has been especially applied to poor kids and especially black kids, and also kids with disabilities. It's really important to note that the risk of dropping out doubles for being suspended even one time. The dropout rate for kids who weren't suspended was 16 percent. Getting suspended out of school even one time, it goes up to 32 percent. Two or more times, it's at 49 percent.

GOODWYN: What happens to a student when he's given a suspension?

LOSEN: Well, all the research says that it contributes to their disengagement from school. So you can imagine that for poor students, students from single-parent households or kids who are homeless, they're much more likely to wind up on the streets unsupervised. So there's no guarantee of any adult supervision, and that is one of the reasons that they're much more likely to join gangs and to become involved in the juvenile justice system.

GOODWYN: When a student is suspended, is he taking the first step on his way to prison?

LOSEN: Unfortunately, that is the case. So in addition to increased risk of dropping out, getting suspended out of school even one time is associated with doubling or tripling the risk for juvenile justice involvement. And that brings up another really important issue. The costs of suspending students are really sky high, but they're hidden costs.

GOODWYN: Daniel Losen of UCLA's Civil Rights Project. But not all teachers are on board.

MARTHA INFANTE: If I see the classroom environment is suffering, that the students are getting scared, I will remove the problem student because my other students have rights too.

GOODWYN: Martha Infante teaches at Los Angeles Academy Middle School just across the freeway from John Muir. Infante has taught for 16 years. She believes her ability to suspend disruptive students is an important tool to maintain control of her classroom. She doesn't want disruptive students to drop out or become criminals, but she's not going to sacrifice the right of her other students to learn either.

INFANTE: What happens is that I have to take time away from instruction to explain to those students that they have to follow my instructions. The more time you spend on discipline issues, it affects the classroom environment.

GOODWYN: Infante says she doesn't hand out suspensions willy-nilly, far from it.

INFANTE: You offer counseling, you get services, whatever services are available.

GOODWYN: The problem is in this era of budget cuts, counselors and psychiatric social workers are in short supply. Infante says she rarely issues suspensions, but that just the threat of suspension is often effective.

INFANTE: What they do respond to is being separated from their friends, being removed from the classroom. That is something they don't want.

GOODWYN: Infante says the school board's actions are confusing and troubling. There's been no memo outlining precisely what teachers can and can't do. But the board has released next year's budget, and there's no money for more support services, so no suspensions and no support for other strategies. But principal Jose Huerta has found a third way.

JOSE HUERTA: It's simple. It doesn't cost money. It's just connecting with kids and having a strong instructional program.

GOODWYN: At Garfield High, there are no suspensions, even though there's no more money for counselors or social workers. The year before Jose Huerta took over as principal at Garfield, there were 683 suspensions. Huerta says suspending students had become a reflex to poor behavior. But when he took over in 2010, Jose Huerta said no more. And the results have been dramatic: just two suspensions total in the last three years.

HUERTA: I didn't come into Garfield saying, OK, my mission in life is to lower suspensions. It wasn't. It was to enhance and improve the instruction. And because we did, we were successful with a great teacher group, a great administrative staff, great parents. We have over 80 parents on a daily basis volunteering their time here in Garfield.

And the students, listening to us, telling them, preaching them, lecturing them, they finally got it. We're in the middle of East Los Angeles inner city school, impoverished area. You'll never see graffiti on my campus. You'll rarely see any kind of physical fight here. People are looking at, whoa, suspensions. Wow, what did you do? Look at that. And I try to turn it around and say, it wasn't our focus, folks. You want to make it right, you got to connect with kids. You need to connect.

GOODWYN: So let's say that you have an 11th grader who's unruly in class. He's talking back to the teacher, he's creating a situation which is impossible to teach. What do you do with that student?

HUERTA: I'll tell you what. That is very rare, but it's hypothetically speaking, because we address those issues. It happens. They're teenagers. Teenagers will make mistakes, bad choices. What happens, immediately, the teacher talks to him, already know - has a relationship with him, first of all, because he knows the kids, calls a counselor, and we find out what the real deal is.

Many kids, when they act out the way you described, sir, they are just calling out for help. There's something that happened. We have a counseling team, we have a student support team, and we discuss it, what's going on?

Ninety percent of the time, sir, we find out that something happened the night before. Either dad left the house, doesn't want to live at the home anymore, or there was a - somebody passed away, maybe somebody dear to them. It could've been somebody was deported.

We have families that get - their mom or dad got picked up and all of a sudden they're all here by themselves. They were born here, so they're staying here. That's a rare instance, but it's happened. But these are teenagers. They're not going to go and cry to anybody. They're in a tough neighborhood.

So when that kid acts out, we get in his face immediately, sir. We get to the problem. And if it's bigger than us, we have a lot of community resources that help us and we resolve it. And, you know what, these kids respond well. Their needs were met.

GOODWYN: Since there's no money for additional professionals, Huerta has substituted parents and nonprofit community groups. He believes everyone needs to be held accountable - students, parents, teachers and the local community. Across town in south central L.A., Damien Valentine - you remember - the student who was suspended after refusing to change seats, is now about to finish his sophomore year of high school. That three-week suspension for alleged gang activities made him believe he didn't have a future at his school, so he took action.

DAMIEN VALENTINE: After I got suspended for those three weeks, I was like, oh, I can't keep getting suspended. After I transferred to the next school, I said, all right, this is a new start.

GOODWYN: And it has been a new start for Valentine. At Manual Arts High, he's been able to stay out of trouble. And at the L.A. Unified School Board Meeting, where the decision to curtail suspensions was made, Valentine testified about how suspensions almost pushed him out of the school system altogether. He's proud he was part of the process of changing the school district's suspension policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOODWYN: This is NPR News.

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