Students lined up outside Ernest McBride High School. Photo: Dennis Dean

A new report published this week focusing on racial justice and educational equity within the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) revealed that the district, like countless others in the United States, dishes out punishment disproportionately to minority students, with black students facing the biggest gaps in terms of school discipline.

The report, titled Untold Stories Behind One of America’s Best Urban School Districts, is the product of a dual effort on the part of the Children’s Defense Fund-California (CDF) and Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro-bono law firm. Within the report, the groups dissected hundreds of pages of public documents relating to school policies and how they’re administered— broken down by individual schools and ethnicities.

Its biggest findings were regarding suspensions of black students in the LBUSD. They make up roughly 14 percent of the district’s enrollment but accounted for 38 percent of suspensions district wide during the 2012-2013 school year. Their white peers, who also make up 14 percent of student enrollment, represented seven percent of suspensions during that same time frame.

The study also found that black and Latino students, who combine to represent 69 percent of the district’s overall enrollment, account for 86 percent of LBUSD’s police contacts. The policing of students is a factor about which the groups were critical, noting its expenditure on law enforcement on campuses—$35 million from 2011-2015 school years—and its funding for alternative preventative school climate strategies like restorative justice, a version of discipline that focuses on having the offending student reconcile with those they’ve harmed instead of relying on detention and suspensions.

These figures come at a time when suspensions overall are down statewide and within the LBUSD. Since the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, the state has seen a 41 percent drop in suspensions and Long Beach schools have witnessed a 53 percent decline in the same time period. Still, the authors of the report offered up potential solutions to help quell what the data shows to be disproportionate discipline being handed down by LBUSD administrators.

“This is an important opportunity for LBUSD to embrace positive and trauma-informed school climate strategies that are more effective and racially just,” said Sarah Omojola, former statewide education rights advocate at Public Counsel and co-author of the report, in statement. “LBUSD is really behind the curve in investing in supportive programs instead of policing practices; years of research have shown us that in order to provide better educational opportunities for students, we must shift from punishment to prevention.”

Some of those issues may lie in the policies themselves, before discipline is doled out. The report focused on the lack of a districtwide game plan for discipline; instead it leaves it up to each individual school to set guidelines and corresponding punishments for violating them.

For instance, at Jordan High School, a student must have a parent physically present with them to have a tardy excused. Other campuses like Wilson and Renaissance High Schools require notes on official letterhead from medical offices and do not accept handwritten notes from parents as excusable. The authors argue that inconsistencies in policies and some campuses requiring such stringent requirements to ensure tardies do not stack up, and present challenges to socioeconomically disadvantaged families, as they may lack access to healthcare or, in the case of Jordan, working parents may not be able to accompany students to school for them to avoid missing class time.

Variances in school policies extend to the dress code, where the number of violations needed to incur punishment and the escalation of those punishments vary from campus to campus. At Wilson, a student doesn’t face suspension until they’ve violated the dress code 10 to 14 times. Millikan permits six offenses before an off-campus suspension is administered. At Jordan, the third offense is considered defiance and could result in a one- to five- day suspension.

“If a student is five minutes late to class, one teacher can and might send that student to on-campus suspension or SWAT (Students Who Are Tardy) or ACE (Alternative Classroom Enrollment) in some schools for being late that one day,” said Angelica Salazar a CDF-CA senior policy associate and co-author of the report. “A different teacher who might apply those standards differently or may not have those written policies might say ‘okay, come in, let’s talk about why you’ve been tardy a few times, later’ and maybe address the root cause of the tardiness.”

Crystal Anthony, a junior at Lakewood High School, said that policies aimed at keeping kids in class instead of alternative learning environments or at home on suspension could get students to care more about school, adding that it’s easy to lose interest if you know you’ve missed so much instruction time already.

She recalled a time when she received on-campus suspension from a class because she answered a question when the teacher hadn’t called on her to do so. Anthony said she was merely trying to participate, something that earns her points for doing so, and that being sent out of the classroom had an emotional impact on her, but also made her worry about her relationship with her teacher going forward.

“It made me feel sad because I didn’t want her to think that I was bad student for the rest of the school year,” Anthony said. “I just wanted her to know that I knew the answer and I wasn’t being called on which I thought was unfair because I was in class and trying to participate and you get points for participating.”

Numerous organizations have published studies showing not only the disparate rates at which minorities are disciplined in schools nationwide, but also the corresponding effects that such suspensions have on their success. One study published this year in the journal Social Problems, titled The Punishment Gap: School Suspension and Racial Disparities in Achievement, looked at over 16,000 students in grades six through 10 who attended schools in Kentucky, where the enrollment breakdown was 59 percent white, 25 percent black and 10 percent Latino.

The study found that schools with larger concentrations of black students also had higher rates of suspensions, black and Latino students were more likely to be suspended than other racial groups, those who were suspended earned lower test scores on end-of-year exams, and perhaps more telling, those students who were suspended earned lower scores in years they were suspended versus years that they were not.

It also revealed that poverty, special education and parents’ marital status played into the likelihood of being suspended, with students who required special education, qualified for free lunch programs and lived in single-parent homes more likely to get suspended. The Kentucky data also showed that black students, even after controlling for all of these factors, were still three times more likely to be suspended than white students.

While Kentucky is arguably leaps and bounds away from Long Beach both geographically and culturally, data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection seems to support these trends. Data collected in 2013 showing snapshots of school’s demographics, achievement and discipline rates put Long Beach on similar footing as most districts and states across the country.

Nearly all Long Beach high schools recorded a disproportionately low percentage of on-campus/off-campus suspensions among its white student population. Meanwhile, black students represented a significantly greater portion of the discipline on Long Beach campuses when compared to enrollment figures. Latino students, who made up about 55 percent of the district’s enrollment, mostly experienced proportional discipline when compared to population.

Responding to a request for comment, the district took exception to the report and some of the methods, which it said inaccurately portrays the issues that it admits do exist. LBUSD Public Information Director Chris Eftychiou noted that the title of the study accurately described the district as one of the best school systems before stating objections to the findings.

He said that the district wide suspension rate—one that includes over 80,000 students—is  3.6 percent. Its expulsion rate is listed at zero, because less than a tenth of a percent of its students ever proceed that far in the disciplinary steps.

Eftychiou was also critical of the methodology, which he said was not the state’s methodology for collecting data and conflated on-campus and off-campus suspensions to mean the same thing.

“Their data also includes alternatives to suspension, such as instances when students receive detention on campus or are allowed to do work in another room on campus, even though this group advocates for alternatives to suspension,” Eftychiou said in an email. “The reality is that 96.5 percent of all our students were not suspended, according to the latest data; 96.8 percent of Hispanics were not suspended; and 90.5 percent of African Americans were not suspended.”

Eftychiou conceded that the district does not meet the American School Counselor Association recommendation of a counselor-student ratio of 250-1, something the report was critical of. However, he said that enrollment declines and “unprecedented” budget cuts contributed to the drop off from 184 counselors in 2008 to a total of 107 in 2014. The district’s ratio is currently at 320-1 which he said is the lowest it’s been in many years.

He also defended the district’s use of funds for law enforcement, as the district lacks its own school police department. The practice recently came under scrutiny when a study released last week by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) showed that many school districts in California often outsource routine student discipline to police officers, something that can have both educational and legal impacts on student’s lives. Still, he said that the $35 million figure represents 1.26 percent of the district’s budget over the course of the years cited in the report.

“Would anyone argue that we shouldn’t at least spend one percent of our budget on school safety and emergency preparedness?” Eftychiou said. “This study’s authors do.”

The report calls for several amendments to the district’s operations, including adopting a district wide code of conduct with consistent guidelines, investing in implicit bias training for educators and setting targeting goals for subgroups of students as well as investing more funds in restorative justice efforts and support staff.

The call for discipline goals, similar to the Obama Administration’s call for “Race-Based Discipline,” could run into some resistance. The president’s initiatives met opposition from teachers, parents and administrators alike, who feared that banning disparities in discipline—rates of discipline should match enrollment numbers—could have negative impacts on the overall learning environment, as disruptive students could potentially be left in classes and take away from the instruction time of others.

Salazar recognized the pros and cons associated with that particular item, but said other investments in bias training and having a uniform discipline code could create a sense of continuity across the district and allow for teachers to exercise more judgement when it comes to disciplining students. In a way, she said, those “racial quotas” would work themselves out if more progressive and less punitive options were made available to instructors.

While the district has opted not to adopt restorative justice as the only means of discipline, Eftychiou said that it has been part of pilot programs on some campuses with mixed results. Most recently the district instituted a new trauma-informed pilot program–the first of its kind in the district—this fall at Beach High School aimed at educating staff about stressors and experiences that impact learning capabilities. Eftychiou noted that other districts that have mandated restorative justice have actually seen suspension rates outpace Long Beach.

Salazar said the goal for both sides is to keep students in class and out of detention or at home on suspensions. If the district can work toward policies that continue to result in declining suspension figures, she said it could also see its already impressive achievement figures continue to climb, as with other districts that have adopted similar measures.

“We know that the college readiness track exists in some schools, but not for all students,” Salazar said. “We believe that if we adopted these positive approaches and supports that you would get to the grander point that we’re all trying to get to, which is students are learning and entering that pathway to college and careers.”

Avatar photo

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.