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This January, a teacher at the Luis Valdez Leadership Academy in San Jose, Calif., noticed two students acting erratically after coming out of the bathroom. After some questioning, they owned up to having smoked marijuana. Even just a few years ago, the students, both Latino, would likely have been suspended.

But discipline works differently at LVLA. Instead of being kept away from school, the students were put through the school's restorative justice program, which was created when the charter school was founded in 2014. This involved performing community service outside of school hours, and holding meetings with their parents and school counselors. One student admitted—in the presence of her father—that she had begun smoking because he wasn't home enough.

"Our main response was: What do we need to do to support you and your family to make sure doesn’t happen again?" Jeff Camarillo, the director of LVLA, told me.

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The school has now gone two full years without a suspension—but LVLA remains the exception in the United States.


Last Friday saw the latest study showing school suspensions not only remain the norm for punishment, but disproportionately affect minorities.

The Legal Aid Justice Center of Virginia looked at school punishment rates across the commonwealth for the 2014–2015 school year and found that after three years of decline, suspensions had increased again (they stop short of speculating as to why).

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The group also found that 12.4% of black students had received short-term suspensions (for 10 school days or fewer) at least once, compared with just 3.4% for white students, while 10.9% of students with disabilities were short-term suspended at least once, compared to 4.6% of students without disabilities. Here are some examples:

The findings add to the growing compendium of studies on the the outsized impact suspensions have on students already facing institutional hurdles to successful educations, like poverty and unstable home environments. Studies like this began at the turn of the century, when a Harvard-led study documented the "devastating consequences" of zero-tolerance punishment programs on minorities:

…When the majority of school suspensions and expulsions are meted out to a minority of the school population, these students are likely to interpret the disparity as rejection and, as a result, develop a collective, self-fulfilling belief that they are incapable of abiding by schools’ social and behavioral codes.

Susan Back, education research consultant, notes that, “these kids often interpret suspension as a one-way ticket out of school — a message of rejection that alienates them from ever returning to school. This may explain why so many students are suspended repeatedly, and why, according to (education professor) Lawrence M. DeRidder, being suspended or expelled is one of the top three school-related reasons for dropping out.”

A 2013 study by researchers at UCLA published in 2013 found that suspensions, and their bias against minorities, has only gotten worse over time (the exception being Asian American students, who actually saw their suspension rate fall):

Summing up the existing research, the UCLA writers said:

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….Higher suspending schools reap no gains in achievement, but they do have higher dropout rates and increase the risk that their students will become embroiled in the juvenile justice system…Research also indicates that the frequent use of suspensions could be a detriment to school and community safety because it increases student disengagement and diminishes trust between students and adults.

A report last year by the National Education Association on the "school-to-prison-pipeline" put it most bluntly:

A suspension can be life altering. It is the number-one predictor – more than poverty – of whether children will drop out of school, and walk down a road that includes greater likelihood of unemployment, reliance on social-welfare programs, and imprisonment.

The U.S. Department of Education is aware of the problem. It recently released a series of maps showing the dramatic differences in suspension rates overall.

Education Department

And suspension rates among black students:

Department of Education

"Unfortunately, a significant number of students are removed from class each year—even for minor infractions of school rules—due to exclusionary discipline practices, which disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities," then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote in a 2014 letter to America's school districts.

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Some states are taking heed. Last year, Illinois passed a law that eliminates automatic “zero tolerance” suspensions and expulsions, the Huffington Post reported. It requires that schools exhaust all other means of intervention before expelling students or suspending them for more than three days, and prohibits fines and fees for misbehavior. It also requires schools to communicate with parents about why certain disciplinary measures are being used.

“For too long, harsh school discipline practices have contributed to the under-education and over-criminalization of young people, and especially youth of color,” Dalia Mena, an 18-year-old member of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, a group that lobbied on behalf of the bill’s passage, said in a statement upon the bill's passage.

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In 2014, California passed a law that prevented K–3 students from being suspended for "willful defiance or disruption of school activities" after studies found that black students made up about 6% of total enrollment, but 19% of suspensions for defiance.

But in states like Virginia (the problem does seem to be more common in the South, as the Department of Education's maps and reports like these show), most of the statutes surrounding suspensions remain stuck in the past, Virginia report author Angela Ciolfi told me.

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Virginia still has no caps on how long suspensions can be, meaning they can impact two different school years. It also has very limited language surrounding what infractions cannot lead to suspensions, and has no requirement that an alternative education program be implemented when a student is sent home. Finally, there remains no age floor for when a student can be suspended for any infraction—Ciolfi called the 27,000 elementary students they found suspended in the 2014 school year "astounding."

"I don't know anyone who thinks an elementary student committing a nonviolent crime requires being sent home," she said.

And of the incidents earning Virginia students suspensions, Ciolfi found, few involved violence. Here was the breakdown (which do not include statistics for violent incidents):

"The vast majority of suspensions were issued for non-violent, relatively minor misbehavior," Ciolfi and her co-author wrote. "In fact, approximately half of suspensions were for cell phones, disruption, defiance, insubordination, and disrespect. Perhaps most nonsensically, 670 suspensions were issued for 'attendance.' In other words, students were sent home from school for skipping class or not coming to school."


So what kind of policies should replace suspensions? Restorative justice programs found at schools like LVLA, Ciolfi says. The U.S. Department of Education defines RJ practices as, “non-punitive disciplinary responses that focus on repairing harm done to relationships and people, developing solutions by engaging all persons affected by a harm, and accountability.”

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Ciolfi says such programs are slowly spreading and have been successfully implemented in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Madison, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Oakland, Palm Beach, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, districts across Texas, Fairfax County (Virginia), and Loudoun County (Virginia).

At LVLA, a student in trouble "takes ownership and ultimately find ways to make amends for the negativity they brought into the community," Camarillo said. "We do a lot of public apologies—if the student was disruptive to the learning environment, or did something to a classmate publicly that we saw did not meet the community's standards, they get to engage in reflection process, write about their mistake, and then publicly deliver an apology."

One of the students who was caught smoking pot at LVLA in January told me she had been suspended for a week in elementary school for an undisclosed infraction. The time she missed on that week's worth of studies, especially in math, can still trip her up in class today, she told me.

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So when she was sent to the principal's office this time, she braced for another setback. Instead, school administrators had an intervention with her to get at the root cause of why she had been smoking pot. She was also asked to write a letter of reflection to school officials about how smoking would likely affect her future career prospects.

"Things just went back to normal" after the incident, she said. "I think it would have been worse if I had been suspended—people would have been talking about it forever."

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.