Student suspensions in Calif. charter schools follow familiar, troubling patterns

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Black students and students with disabilities attending California charter schools are significantly more likely to face serious discipline than their peers in those schools, according to data on the state's schools released as part of a new national study from UCLA.

Nearly 12.9 percent of the students who attend seventh through 12th grade in California charter schools are black, but the suspension rate for black students in these schools tops 18.4 percent, according to data released with the study. By contrast, Latinos account for more than half of secondary charter schools' enrollment, but their suspension rate is only 8 percent.

Yet the study also found the demographic disparities in suspension rates at charter schools differed little from the rates at non-charter schools, suggesting charter schools have played a significant — but not outsized — role in the creation of a so-called "school-to-prison pipeline."

Research shows too many out-of-school suspensions or other more severe disciplinary measures during a child's K-12 education can increase the chances that student would drop out, which in turn makes that student more likely to commit criminal offenses later in life.

Education experts point out the study takes a snapshot of the past: the data come from the 2011-12 school year. That same year, education analyst Sarah Yatsko said, researchers released a watershed report that focused school leaders' attention for the first time on the harms disparities in discipline could cause.

School leaders "really didn't understand the extent to which [student suspension] was happening, and they didn't understand the detrimental impact that it caused," said Yatsko, who studies charter and public schools at the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

Still, the data offer the first look in more than a decade at the state of school discipline at charter schools, said study author Daniel Losen, who leads the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA's Civil Rights Project.

"There's been very little data collected on charter schools until now," said Losen.

While the overall discipline trends in charter schools mirror those in non-charters, the study also says roughly one out of every ten charters qualifies as "high-suspending." In those schools, staff suspended more than 25 percent of their student body during the 2011-12 school year.

Though most charters suspend relatively few students, Losen linked the study's finding to the impact of "zero tolerance" practices in charter schools, where schools believe as a matter of principle that strict discipline is central to creating a school environment conducive to learning.

"We're concerned that they're trying to exempt themselves — as they do in California — from requirements not to suspend kids in grades K-3 from minor offenses such as 'disruption,'" Losen said. "Those sorts of exemptions are not healthy and we feel are counterproductive."

In the UCLA study, several L.A.-area charter schools numbered among the California charters who suspended outsized proportions of black students.

At Ánimo Phillis Wheatley Charter Middle School, the UCLA study found 90 percent of the school's black students were suspended at least once. They made up roughly half of the student body at the school. Several other Ánimo campuses in southwest L.A. had the highest suspension rates among African-Americans in 2011-12.

But Sean Thibault, a spokesperson for their operator, Green Dot Public Schools, provided data showing since then, Ánimo Wheatley has cut overall suspension rates by nearly two-thirds. At other schools, they've cut rates by half.

Thibault pointed out Green Dot took over operation of Ánimo Wheatley in 2011 from the Los Angeles Unified School District. He said that made it difficult for school staff to build a culture of personal responsibility from scratch.

"The [suspension] rates from 2011-12 are indeed unsettling and unacceptable to us," Thibault said. "And as an organization, our own surprise at them five years ago prompted several initiatives to improve our own discipline outcomes … This is one of Green Dot's highest priorities."

Thibault said schools have hired more counselors and psychologists, brought in mentors for students and have aimed to create a system of supports that helps address the root problems of misbehavior.