Palo Alto High School and East Palo Alto Charter School suspension rates are significantly lower than the national average, which, according to recent data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) disproportionately affects male students and disenfranchised minority groups.
Though local rates are low, Stanford education experts and local public school officials responded with concern for the societal implications that the nationally high rates bring and offered alternatives on how to bring the rates down.
The OCR released a report last month showing that approximately 1 in 3 young African American males in the U.S. are likely to be suspended and/or expelled more than once in their middle school and high school careers. African American and Hispanic students are also more likely to be restrained or secluded, the report says.
In the Palo Alto Unified School District, which has an enrollment of 11,570 students according to the Department of Education, 30 students received in-school suspensions during last school year, while 210 received out-of-school suspensions and five were expelled. Of these students, 50 percent of suspension cases and 100 percent of expulsion cases were white students. The remainder of suspensions were split almost evenly between African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Claude Goldenberg, a professor in the School of Education, wrote in an email to The Daily that the concerning rates are indicators that schools fail to foster a feeling of success for their students.
“We’ve just not done a good job creating learning environments where all students feel they can thrive, be challenged and benefit from putting forth good effort,” Goldenberg wrote. “There are many students from other groups in similar situations, so it’s not just African American students we are failing to reach.”
Bill Koski, Stanford law professor and director of Stanford’s Youth and Education Law Project, has worked with youth regarding school disciplinary practices and has witnessed a common trajectory for students.
“When you suspend kids, when you expel kids, it puts them on track to possibly not graduate from school and worse scenario gets them involved in the criminal justice system,” Koski said.
Koski said there is no agreement on specific reasons for the disparity in the punishment rates, but Palo Alto High School Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson, suggests that financial resources of school districts may play a role.
“If you’re at a less affluent place, sometimes you’re not getting the same quality of education, you get frustrated, you act out, then you get suspended,” Berkson said.
Palo Alto High School, with a demographic of predominantly white students, has had no expulsions this past year and minimal suspensions, according to Berkson.
“One of the reasons there’s success here in Palo Alto is because you have parents who were successful in school and that in turn was given on to their kids–and that’s a good cycle, whereas if you have people who are not finishing school, who are not successful, the cycle’s going to continue on that side as well.”
Goldenberg said he agrees that parents do play a role because they “can establish expectations, encourage, set limits, give unconditional love, take an active interest in their welfare and let their children know the importance of giving your best effort at school.”
However, Goldenberg also noted the cycle of influence parents have on their children that can negatively affect them.
“But one of the things that happens is that parents can get discouraged, too, either due to their own experiences or if they see their son or daughter doing poorly,” Goldenberg wrote.
“We’ve seen cases where parents start out with pretty high expectations for their child’s school success, but if a child starts to do poorly or become disaffected with school, the parents’ expectations start to erode, which then probably contributes to a downward spiral.”
Sharon Johnson, principal of East Palo Alto Charter School, said that students’ cultural backgrounds may also have an effect on the rates of disciplinary measures.
“There are cultural differences that may not match the culture of the classroom and it’s the culture of the classroom that should change to meet the needs of where students are coming from, not the other way around,” Johnson said.
East Palo Alto Charter School shares similar suspension and expulsion rates with Palo Alto High, though Johnson noted that boys are sent to her office at a much higher rate than girls.
The study by the CDRC revealed that, in fact, males are overall more likely to be suspended or expelled.
“We think that schools are not really set up for the energy that boys bring to the classroom and that we need to think really hard about how to make the environment so that there is a time and space for more movement and physical learning,” Johnson said.
Regardless of the cause for the rates, methods by which to reduce them revolve around rethinking the use of out-of-school suspension practices and strengthening school community.
“Rather than try to assign blame to anybody I think the better route is to try to not exclude kids from school particularly from low-level offences,” Koski said.
Johnson said that exclusionary discipline practices remove a student’s accountability from an offense.
“If there is a fight on campus we would rather have the student be held accountable to the other student they were fighting with–they would lose the privilege of being in the classroom with their peers until they could show that they could act responsibly with their peers and treat everyone with respect,” Johnson said.
Goldenberg wrote that elementary school is where reform of discipline and a positive academic environment must start. An example would be of the “character curriculum” Johnson uses at her school in which students partake in daily morning check-in aimed at fostering a loving, respectful community with positive peer pressure.
“We’re preparing you to own your own future and we do this in elementary school by focusing on why they made the choices they made and helping them realize that those were their own choices and that they have control over their future,” Johnson said.
“From the school’s standpoint, the most important thing is to create school environments where all students can feel successful and where they have a stake in doing well,” Goldenberg wrote. “Easier said than done! But that is what we must do.”