Last month, California’s top education official announced suspensions have been cut in half since five years ago, and expulsions are down more than 40 percent. The state has encouraged these reductions as mounting evidence has shown out-of-school suspensions and expulsions do more harm than good.
But the story behind the numbers is complicated. As schools stop relying on suspensions and expulsions to discipline students, some struggle to find other ways to keep bad behavior in check.
At one middle school in Kern County that’s lead to some drastic measures. A few weeks ago, a dozen parents, teachers and community members met in the public library near the little farmworker community of Weedpatch.
Local school board member Leticia Prado gathered them around a whiteboard to go over the results of a recent survey of with 100 kids from local schools. Prado took the group through a series of punishments students described:
“Standing with their noses to the wall for long periods of time — 21 students said yes.”
“Being forced to do push-ups — 18 students said yes.”
The group found these practices were pervasive at one school in particular, Sunset Middle School in Weedpatch, where kids were also told to pull weeds and clean classrooms and bathrooms.
That’s where Virginia Melchor’s son goes to school. Melchor is worried those practices are lowering the kids’ self-esteem, and making them resentful. She doesn’t want her son to end up hating school, on a path that’s all too familiar.
Her older son was bullied in middle school, got in fights and was suspended. That record followed him to high school, where he kept getting suspended until he was finally expelled. “My son was really hurt and left with a negative outlook on school,” she said.
Melchor was part of a lawsuit over discipline policies at the district that disproportionately impacted black and Latino students. According to the suit, for the 2009-2010 school year, the district had over 2,000 expulsions, the highest number in the state, and it expelled black and Latino kids at twice the rate of white kids.
The district settled the suit earlier this year. In an agreement, it promised to create new discipline policies with help from experts on unconscious racial bias.
Melchor said these reforms come too late for her older son. He’s working in the fields now, picking fruit.
The experience has left her with a dark view of her local schools. “We’re living in poverty,” she said, “and they want our kids to stay in poverty, working in the fields.”
She’s glad things are changing at the high schools, but knows what happens before ninth grade helps determine how students fare later on. That’s why she’s worried about her younger son and his middle school classmates.
Crystal Rodriguez Morales is a sixth-grader at Sunset. When she got in trouble for messing around in class, she said the principal made her stand outside the office, facing the wall, during lunch and recess — that’s 35 minutes per day — for the whole week. She’d eat lunch standing at the wall.
“It made me want to cry," said Crystal, “because it wasn’t fair. At least make me sit down. My feet were really hurting.”
Once, she said, the principal had her in the office doing wall sits, those exercises where you sit against the wall without a chair and your quads burn like crazy.
“I was in pain, my eyes went watery,” said Crystal, adding that she couldn’t do her school work because she was in the office most of the day.
Crystal’s mother, Teresa Morales, doubts this kind of punishment works. “I know my daughter,” said Morales. “This is not the way to get through to her.”
Crystal agrees. “It just makes us frustrated more,” she said, “and makes us do more bad things.”
The principal, Matthew Ross, confirms he meted out the punishments described, but argues they were necessary.
“Last year it was absolutely out of control,” said Ross. “We needed to take control of the school back again.”
Ross is also the superintendent of this tiny district. He stepped in as Sunset’s principal a year ago after the last principal quit.
“Cyber bullying, intimidation, harassment, parents taking their students to another person's house to fight the other student because that's how they thought that they would get justice,” he said. “That's what we were facing.”
The behavior got so bad, he said, because the school was trying to do something good: reduce the suspension rate.
“Part of it was an over-correction of the idea that we’re not supposed to suspend kids,” he said.
A few years ago, Sunset Middle School was suspending students at close to three times the state rate. Since then, suspensions have dropped by 60 percent.
The state of California has made this a priority, plus there was the added pressure of that lawsuit over discipline policies in the county, so the school cut way back on suspensions. But nobody really figured out what to do instead.
“The principal doesn’t want it to look like there’s a lot of suspensions, so he doesn’t suspend anyone,” said a long-time instructional aide at the school who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, "but there are a lot of problems at the school.”
Ross, though, feels like he had no choice.
“I challenge anyone who's complaining: work here for 30 days and watch the frustration of a teacher who’s got six or seven kids who incessantly disrupt the class and keep others from learning. See the frustration from other kids who actually want to learn. Or the parents who send their kids to school to get a good education.”
Ross defends his harsh practices and says he’s taking steps to put in place a more structured system of discipline — including counselors to help get at the root causes of kids’ behavior.
Meanwhile, those parents who surveyed their kids about how they were treated at school plan to take the results to the county. If the county doesn’t take action, they said they’ll go to the state.
Melchor said they’ll take this as far as it needs to go.
“We didn’t get an education,” she said, “so we want the best for our kids.”