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These articles were produced through a reporting collaboration between the Center for Public Integrity and the San Francisco Public Press.

While there are many aspects of culture and politics that unite the nine counties of the San Francisco Bay Area, a region of more than 7 million people, attitudes toward school discipline do not seem to be among them.

What happens to students when they disrupt the classroom or commit crimes depends largely on where they live.

That is because approaches to expulsion and suspension vary widely across school districts and across the region. Over the past seven years in the Bay Area, expulsion rates range from among the very lowest in California in San Francisco County, averaging 0.07 percent, to nearly double the state average in Napa and Solano counties to the north, averaging 1.08 percent and 1 percent. San Francisco isn’t the only county that has seen recent declines. Napa county has seen a sharp per-capita decline.

While reforms such as restorative justice appear to coincide with decreases in expulsion rates across the region in the last year or two, school administrators at the county and local level have a wide range of views on the best ways to preserve order in schools after a student has misbehaved. While some have embraced peer courts and after-school diversion programs, others have given little credence to the trend toward softer disciplinary practices taking off in places like San Francisco.

By their nature, California school districts are independent, and policies on everything from security to dress codes can differ significantly. There is no uniform approach to discipline, as borne out by statistics compiled by the California Department of Education.

The disparities among schoolchildren in low-income and minority communities have been extensively documented. Two recent studies reported that minority students were more likely to be expelled or suspended than their white peers for similar offenses. In Texas, the Council of State Governments reported that African-American students were 31 percent more likely than whites or Hispanics to be suspended or expelled under the discretionary decision-making authority of local school officials.

In North Carolina, 32 percent of black students received out-of-school suspensions for the first instance of possessing a cell phone. Fewer than 15 percent of white students were suspended for the same offense.

Most recently, a University of California-Los Angeles study suggested that harsh penalties for misbehavior impair student achievement and offer no benefit to other students.

While schools in California have discretion in suspending students, the decision to expel them ultimately belongs to school boards. (Cases of violence or drug use, though, fall under state laws that require zero-tolerance and removal from schools.) In 1995, the state enacted Assembly Bill 922, authorizing districts to set up community day schools, in hopes of keeping banished students out of the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The website, a project of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, compiled statistics based on figures reported by counties to state education officials. The data over the last seven years show San Francisco consistently expelling the fewest students yearly, between 13 and 77 students.

In contrast, Alameda and Contra Costa counties each ejected around 400 students per year since the 2004-05 academic year, most coming from Alameda’s Oakland Unified and Contra Costa’s West Contra Costa Unified school districts.

The leaders in the rate of expulsions over this period were Solano and Napa counties, though recently the numbers of expulsions have fallen. Each with more than 1 percent of students kicked out, these two counties flanking San Francisco Bay to the north far exceeded California’s overall rate, which hovered between 0.30 and 0.50 percent between 2005 and 2011. It wasn’t until last year that Napa’s expulsion rate fell to 0.15 percent, below the current state average of 0.35 percent.

Changing attitudes

Some school boards stand out as leaders in reducing expulsion rates even as the counties where they reside struggle to find effective means to do so.

Napa County has seen the sharpest decline in the Bay Area. Reintegrating oft-disciplined students into the mainstream of the student population is the goal in Napa County schools, said Kurt Schultz, a retired Napa High School dean who is now the district’s due process administrator.

“We’ve critically taken a look at the number of expulsions and implemented a strategic intervention,” Schultz said. “We take an overall look at interventions that re-engage students in the classroom.”

Schultz attributed the county’s previous high expulsion numbers to gang activity in the schools, mostly among Hispanic students. Better cultural understanding and interventions against gang activity led to a significant drop in expulsions. In addition, the district collaborated with law enforcement, social service agencies and community groups to address disciplinary issues.

“All of us working together has made such a nice impact on safety in school campuses,” Schultz said.

Napa is experimenting with other methods to keep kids in school when they act out. Alternatives to expulsion include in-school suspension and having students write apology letters to the people they have wronged.

“My philosophy about discipline is when we talk to families, I have a firm belief those are real opportunities to teach students what it is to be successful young women and men,” Schultz said.

Although school districts are required to report the numbers and causes for expulsion to the state education department, information about a student’s race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status is given on a voluntary basis. A few district administrators did acknowledge that expulsions against minorities were disproportionate — part of the national pattern.

The West Contra Costa Unified School District, with an expulsion rate of 0.49 percent last year, is working to address the underlying causes of student misbehavior. Since 2006, the district has expelled more than 100 students each year, mostly for drug-related offenses by boys from ethnic minority groups. Last year’s rate also reflects a small but growing trend in female expulsions for bullying. Wendell Greer, the associate superintendent of the district’s schools, points to the bleak economy as a source of tension.

“We’re seeing the stresses of poverty, unemployment, homelessness and hunger,” Greer said. “Basic needs are not being met. You see more of this underlying current of being disenfranchised.”

But in the first two months of this school year, only three students were expelled, a significant drop from the 10 to 12 expulsions the district averaged per month last year. Greer credits such methods as restorative justice and peer mediation. Using such techniques, students get involved in the process to defuse conflicts and resolve them peacefully.

“We give them the tools to discuss the consequences of their actions,” he said.

Assessing students’ needs doesn’t necessarily stop after they are expelled. Community day schools, as required by state law, fill that role, he said: “Counseling is 90 percent of what they do in the community schools.”

Story written by T.J. Johnston for the SF Public Press.

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