Register | Forums | Log in

Santa Rosa school district working to cut high suspension totals

Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 6:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 3:28 p.m.

Santa Rosa City Schools suspends middle and high school students at a rate exceeded by only three other large districts in California.

Of the 4,587 suspensions in the 2011-12 school year — a rate of four for every 10 students — nearly 1,500 were for violence or drugs. Many of the cases involved repeat offenders.

Nearly three times as many Latinos were suspended than whites, even though the groups make up roughly equal portions of the student population in middle and high schools.

African-American students, who represent just 3 percent of the secondary enrollment, represented 7percent of the overall suspensions that year.

“This district has not been successful,” said the district's first-year superintendent, Socorro Shiels. “We've got numbers that are too high.”

District officials said the numbers reflect years of entrenched policy based largely on the concept of zero tolerance of misconduct. But that philosophy has come under fire by educators and youth advocates who contend that sending troubled kids home — away from an educational environment with little to no supervision and no connection to their misdeed — is misguided.

“There is nothing more consequential and difficult than sitting down with a person you have harmed and hearing how you have impacted them,” said David Yusem, program manager for the restorative justice program at Oakland Unified School District. “It's much more difficult than going home and playing video games for a few days.”

The state rankings of districts with more than 10,000 students show Santa Rosa's suspension rate is double that of Fresno Unified, three times greater than Oakland's and more than four times that of Compton's in Los Angeles County.

Only San Lorenzo Unified, Roseville and Vallejo had higher rates of suspensions in 2011-12, the most recent data available in state records.

“We are on a trajectory to nowhere,” said Frank Pugh, who is the longest-serving district trustee, having been first elected in 1990. “This is not all rosy information, but information that we need to confront and see and understand.”

The Santa Rosa district also is disproportionately high in expulsions.

Its middle and high schools accounted for 49 percent of all expulsions in Sonoma County in 2011-12, although it enrolls just 16 percent of the student population.

That disproportionate rate stretches back to 2000-01, when Santa Rosa's middle and high schools recommended 212 students for expulsion — representing 50 percent of all expulsion cases in Sonoma County, despite accounting for only 18 percent of students.

In September, Shiels called for the creation of a task force to study positive student behavior interventions.

The district has been working with Restorative Resources, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling and conferences meant as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions. It's a process that asks students to face the harm they have created while remaining within the school community.

The pilot program this school year was funded largely by grants and limited to just a handful of campuses, but Sonoma County's largest school district is now considering implementing the program across the district.

“It's been this way since the year 2000, at least, so it's clearly part of the culture,” said trustee Jenni Klose, who was elected to the board in November. “I think it's unfortunate that it wasn't caught earlier, but it wasn't and I'm glad we are doing something about it.”

“I don't think that it is by any means intentional or reflective of values, but somehow it is happening and it's something we need to look at really closely,” she said.

State law now requires a closer examination of disciplinary policies. As of January, when Assembly Bill 1729 went into effect, administrators are allowed to suspend students only after alternatives such as community service or restorative resources have been tried.

According to the California Education Code, only five offenses call for automatic expulsion: possessing a firearm; brandishing a knife; unlawfully selling a controlled substance; committing or attempting to commit sexual assault; and possession of an explosive.

But suspensions are largely judgment calls based on years of precedent, officials said.

“That has been the policy and we have just followed policy and now we are looking at other ways,” said trustee Larry Haenel.

In 2011-12, Santa Rosa City Schools suspended students a total of 9,798 days. The state funding lost because those students were not in school was approximately $350,000.

The educational loss is not as easily quantifiable, but is central to reworking the district's disciplinary model, educators say.

“For a lot of kids, it's just a day off. It's not tied to any meaningful discipline,” trustee Laura Gonzalez said.

And working parents have a difficult time making an at-home suspension anything more than a day free of supervision, educators say.

“I can't tell you how many families say 'You are going to send the kid home? Can he come to campus? Can he clean the campus?'” said Linsey Gannon, assistant principal at Cook Middle School, and a member of the district task force.

In Santa Rosa high and middle schools in 2011-12, “defiance” was cited as the reason for 60 percent of suspensions. But defiance was cited as the cause for just nine of 106 expulsions that year.

“I looked at this as just being the norm. I didn't like it,” trustee Ron Kristof said. “Now the statistics obviously are there that say maybe we need to do something different.”

The concept of zero tolerance began in the 1980s with the war on drugs, and later became linked with gun violence. It has since stretched to cover stringent policies on student behaviors and prescriptive discipline under which grade schoolers caught kissing classmates can be sent home for sexual harassment, opponents say.

“What the research is telling us is that zero tolerance is not really working,” said Aaron Dorsey, program manager of equity and achievement programs with the National School Boards Association. “Suspension in itself is not wrong ... I think sometimes it has been used as a crutch.”

The national association last month released a report that highlighted how out-of-school suspensions negatively affect student achievement and can increase a students's likelihood of dropping out.

Advocates of rethinking suspension and expulsion argue that sending troubled kids home does nothing to address the underlying issues the spurred the behavior.

“The old approach was more punitive: 'You have done something wrong. You are suspended. Go home,'” said George Valenzuela, attorney for Santa Rosa City Schools.

In 2009-10, more than 3.3 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade were estimated to have lost classroom time because of out-of-school suspensions, according to the the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The American Pediatrics Association this year called for a reduction in expulsions and out-of-school suspensions, saying the fallout from so much missed classroom time is broad.

“Periodic scrutiny of policies should be placed not only on the need for a better understanding of the educational, emotional, and social impact of out-of-school suspension and expulsion on the individual student, but also on the greater societal costs of such rigid policies,” the report found.

Gonzalez, the Santa Rosa School Board member, said change has been a long time coming.

“Intervention is needed because I don't like to think that these 17-year-olds or 16-year-olds are just kind of done,” she said.

And out-of-school suspensions are not much better, she said.

“I think it's punitive,” she said. “They come right back and they haven't learned anything and nothing changes.”

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press or on Twitter @benefield.)

All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top