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From President Obama to Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, politicians are habitually warning us that high dropout rates among some students are a civil rights issue, and a drag on U.S. global competitiveness.

On the East Coast, let’s see if the Maryland Board of Education’s recent decision to force reductions in school suspensions actually helps boost graduation rates in that state’s more troubled schools. A major board report on discipline policies notes that 54 percent of Maryland’s out-of-school suspensions are for non-violent infractions.

On the West Coast, keep an eye on California, which could adopt state bills that also set limits on school discipline policies. A Los Angeles public-interest law firm, Public Counsel, is sponsoring many of California’s eight pending bills, and says that for many kids, out-of-school suspensions are merely “an unsupervised vacation.”

A growing number of education experts, along with some juvenile court judges, are concerned that school discipline has spiraled out of control with more zero-tolerance mandates — in part, a reaction to school shootings — and harsher responses to misbehavior that’s really pretty minor. New research finds that removing kids frequently from classrooms can result in kids feeling more alienated from school, falling behind and continuing to make poor choices — dropping out among them.

Discipline is also falling disproportionately on ethnic minorities, and sometimes is harsher than for white students who commit the same offenses, according to data cited by the National Education Policy Center, a nonpartisan research facility housed at the University of Colorado.

Changes in Maryland

Last month, as the Washington Post describes, Maryland’s state Board of Education overwhelmingly approved reforms that aim to reduce suspensions of students and pressure schools to use tested alternative methods to deal with behavior problems.

The policies require schools to adopt alternative behavior-management plans and consider suspension to be a “last resort.” No more local zero-tolerance policies will be allowed that require schools to boot students, the Post reports. The state’s school districts will also have to track data to ensure that no single ethnicity or special-education students are disproportionately suspended. If they are, district would have a year to work on lowering that disproportionate rate and three years to eliminate it.

“No student comes to school ‘perfect,’ academically or behaviorally,” the state board said in its report. “We do not throw away the imperfect or difficult students … Every student who stays in school and graduates, college and career ready, adds to health and wealth of the state of Maryland and improves the global competitiveness of this country. It is that simple. It is that important. It is all connected.”

The reforms will apply statewide, but allow for some local discretion; the Post story notes some dissent among school officials.

Golden State reforms

Newly analyzed California data also shows that a large proportion of student suspensions and expulsions there have been for “willful defiance,” a highly subjective label that can encompass a broad range of behavior.

Analyzing 2010-2011 California state records, the Center for Public Integrity found that nearly 293,000 suspensions had been handed out in California for defiance or disruption. That was far more than the number of suspensions for students getting into a physical fight or threatening to fight, which totaled less than 183,000. An ever increasing number of young kids have been getting suspended for everything from a pushing match to using bad language to failing to do classwork.

A California mother told the Center for Public Integrity, for example, that her elementary-school son was suspended repeatedly, often for failure to finish class work he didn’t understand. He only fell further behind sitting at home, and his confidence was shattered, she said. Yet her son hadn’t ever been tested for special needs or emotional problems, despite her requests.

One of the bills in California, which has passed the state Senate, requires schools with high rates of suspension for certain student groups to adopt proven alternative strategies to improve behavior. The requirement would be triggered if records show that a school suspends 25 percent or more of a numerically significant ethnic group or special-needs students. Eventually the requirement would be triggered if 15 percent or more of a subgroup population were suspended. The bill’s author is state Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, the Democratic leader of the state Senate.

One of Steinberg’s co-authors is state Sen. Michael Rubio of Shafter, who represents part of Kern County, in the state’s Central Valley. A Center for Public Integrity investigation last year found that Kern County had the highest rate of expulsions in California in 2010-2011; one out of every four expulsions was based on accusations of obscenity.

In March, the Center reported that in the 2009-2010 academic year, 30 percent of the black male students at Kern County’s Bakersfield High School were given more than one out-of-school suspension that year, compared to 12 percent of all males. The figures were part of the U.S. Department of Education’s national Civil Rights Database, which was released last March. It is an interactive resource showing records, school by school, of student discipline in much of the United States.

Another California proposal would cap truancy fines for local daytime curfew violations at $50, and give more discretion to school administrators to decline to refer students to law enforcement and instead work on solutions to root causes for truancy. Another bill would clarify that school administrators have discretion to consider underlying facts about an incident and decline to recommend that a student be expelled for an infraction. The same bill also clarifies that expulsion is not mandatory for having prescription drugs, over-the-counter medicine or an imitation firearm.

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Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...