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This Thursday, March 22, 2012 photo shows inspirational messages at Garfield High School in Los Angeles. School suspensions used to be for serious offenses such as fighting or bringing weapons and drugs on campus, but these days they're just as likely for talking back to a teacher, cursing, walking into class late or even eye rolling. More than 40 percent of suspensions in California are for "willful defiance, " or any behavior that disrupts class, and critics say it needs to be eliminated because it's overused for trivial offenses, disproportionately used against black and Latino boys and alienates the students who need most to stay in school. Garfield has almost completely eliminated suspensions in the currrent school year, down from hundreds in previous years. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Each year in California, hundreds of thousands of children are sent home from school, for a day or longer -- sometimes, unsupervised -- as a consequence for misbehavior.

Researchers with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that students with disabilities were twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as their non-disabled peers, and that African-American students were three times as likely as white students to be suspended.

"It just defies common sense, the frequency at which some kids are being kicked out of school," said Daniel Losen, the report's lead author.

In the 2009-10 school year alone, 7 percent of California's public schoolchildren and 18 percent of black students were suspended at least once, according to the report.

In some Bay Area districts the rate of African-American suspensions was even higher: 37 percent in Liberty Union and Vallejo, 33 percent in Livermore Valley, and 29 percent in the Walnut Creek Elementary School District.

Statewide, the Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City posted the second-highest suspension rate for black students: 61 percent. That means that three in five black students, who make up only 4 percent of the student body, were suspended in the school year. The district also had the second-highest suspension rate for Hispanics, at 28 percent.


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Also near the top in suspension of black students was the Ravenswood City School District. The K-8 district in East Palo Alto ranked 11th in the state in suspensions of African-American students, at 40 percent. Black students make up 11 percent of the student body. The suspension rate for Latino students was much lower, 12 percent.

The UCLA report's district-by-district breakdown is based on information reported by school districts to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. That data does not include the reason for the suspensions or the length of time a student was out of school.

In general, the basis for an out-of-school suspension can vary widely, from defiance to the possession of deadly weapons. California law requires school districts to suspend or expel students who are caught selling drugs, brandishing a knife, possessing a firearm or explosive, or sexually assaulting someone.

"We don't send kids home for ticky-tacky suspensions," said Mike McLaughlin, superintendent of John Swett Unified in Contra Costa County, a small district that suspended nearly one-fourth of its students in 2009-10, according to the report.

Click on image to enlarge.
Click on image to enlarge.

In a news conference Tuesday, Losen and other experts argued that out-of-school suspensions should be used only as a last resort. They called on schools to embrace alternative forms of intervention such as restorative justice -- which aims to repair the harm caused by an offense or conflict -- and behavioral improvement plans for students with disabilities who are acting out.

"Suspending kids does not increase graduation rates, increase student health or make schools safer," said Castle Redmond, a former teacher and case manager in Oakland Unified who now works for the California Endowment. "Suspended kids come back, and when they do, they feel less connected to the school and more resentful to the adults on campus."

A 2011 study by The Council of State Governments Justice Center found that students who were suspended or expelled were at a higher risk of repeating a grade, coming in contact with the juvenile justice system and dropping out of school.

Even among districts with lower overall suspension rates, some had markedly higher rates for students of color. A Latino student in the Fremont Union High School District in Sunnyvale was almost three times more likely to be suspended than a white student. In Fremont Unified in Fremont, black students were suspended at four times the overall suspension rate.

John Swett Unified suspended 42 percent of its black students during the 2009-10 school year.

McLaughlin, the district's superintendent, said his schools have been working to reduce repeat suspensions. Schools must hold students accountable for their actions, he said. "But if we're sending them home, over and over and over, what are we doing?"

Staff writer Sharon Noguchi contributed to this report. Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.IBAbuzz.com/education. Follow her at Twitter.com/katymurphy.