LOS ANGELES— There is a growing trend in U.S. schools to re-think the way students are disciplined for bad behavior, including finding alternatives to punishments such as out-of-school suspensions. In Los Angeles, a city with one of the largest school districts in the country, changes in discipline policies are already affecting students.
In a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood known for its poverty and gangs, growing up can be tough. That’s especially true for Garfield High School student Marco Antonio Aguilar.
“My freshman year, everything went bad. I hated the school,” he said.
Aguilar says he had the wrong friends, often skipped school and even got into fights. The school suspended him and he almost had to go to a school for problem students. But a talk with his mom woke him up.
“She was always there for me. She cooked for me. So for me to waste my time at school, that wasn’t fair for her, and being a single mom that’s even more sad for her for me to be messing around like that. What also sparked the fire more was with the help of the teachers I received, and knowing that they did care about me, the school did really help me,” Aguilar recalls.
Looking for alternatives
Garfield High School Principal Jose Huerta does not believe in suspensions.
“You don’t have to suspend kid. It doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s not even expensive, it’s very simple, connect with students,” he said.
When he first arrived at Garfield High more than four years ago, the dropout rate was more than 50 percent, with close to 700 suspensions a year. He says most of the suspensions were for minor behavioral problems known as “willful defiance.”
“It could be from chewing gum in class to sticking gum under the things,” he said.
Huerta, a new principal at the time, changed the discipline policy. Instead of facing suspension, those with willful defiance issues will first talk to a teacher, then a parent may get involved and eventually, a support group if needed.
Garfield High now has an 85 percent graduation rate, and the school has changed.
"The reason we don't see vandalism or anything is because now there's a connection with our students. They respect us dearly and we respect them, and I tell them I love them. Every time we have an assembly: 'remember guys I love you and we love you" and they all respond with an applause because they don't always get that," he said.
Punishments for behavioral problems used to be decided by each school in this urban district. But last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District banned out-of-school suspension as a form of punishment for students with willful defiance issues.
Superintendent John Deasy says he started working on finding solutions to the problematic discipline policy when he first came to Los Angeles Unified in 2011.
“Far too many suspensions, and far far too many suspensions for black and brown youth,” he said.
More suspensions in poor neighborhoods
The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education recently called on schools to find alternatives to suspensions for non-violent behavior.
Dan Losen of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA says while 60 percent of secondary schools in the U.S. do not have high suspension rates, those that do often are in poor black or Latino neighborhoods.
“The schools that suspend high number of kids, they don’t have better achievement. They don’t have better graduation rates,” he said.
United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher says that while suspending a student should never be a first option, taking the option away completely is not the solution either.
“If you take it off the table; if you make it so that a school essentially doesn’t have that option at all in an environment of ballooning class sizes and deep, deep cuts to student mental health, it creates a pressure cooker environment in a school, and that’s not good for anyone,” said Fletcher.
While the number of suspensions nationwide seems to be slowly decreasing, many educators say a more permanent solution is to pair changes in discipline with more funding to provide support for the students - so they can succeed like Aguilar, who plans on going to college when he graduates this year.