As Student Citations Drop in Los Angeles, Questions About ‘Ghost Suspensions’ Rise

Amidst mounting criticism of its disciplinary practices in recent years, Los Angeles Unified School District began shifting away from citations and suspensions and toward practices that emphasize keeping students in the classroom in 2012.

Reaction to Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) discipline overhaul has been mixed. As the L.A. Times reported last week, teachers feel unprepared to manage classrooms populated by students who, in the past, would have been removed for offenses such as “willful defiance.” And while public officials applaud dropping citation numbers, community activists say the data don’t entirely reveal how effective the district is at keeping students in class.

Rob McGowan, associate organizing director for CADRE LA, a community advocacy group in South Los Angeles, said the district’s former citation policy took a toll on students.

McGowan once knew quite a few youth who feared going to school. The class bully hadn’t deterred them, nor had the pop quiz in algebra.

The students skipped school rather than turn up to campus late because they feared police would cite them for truancy.

“This especially happens with poor folks,” said McGowan. “Truancy tickets can be a couple hundred dollars. Then, they double or triple. It’s almost like a poor tax.”

Because low-income students face transportation barriers, they’re more likely to be tardy, McGowan said. School police used to cite latecomers to class as truant for wandering outdoors during school hours.

To avoid costly truancy fines, poor students in this predicament began ditching class completely. The trend raised concerns as a mountain of research has shown that missing school increases the odds that children will fall behind in class, and ultimately drop out and enter the criminal justice system.

Today LAUSD students no longer have to fear they’ll be ticketed for showing up to school late. The district announced in August 2014 that it would stop citing youth for infractions such as fighting, vandalism, marijuana possession or trespassing, including truancy.

The policy change lines up with the Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court initiative championed by California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye to counter chronic student absenteeism. And at the state level, the Office of the Attorney General seeks to curb the problem with parent education, district interventions and community outreach rather than punishing families for truancies.

LAUSD’s new citation policy took effect during the 2014-15 school year. Over that period, LAUSD issued 460 diversions to students who otherwise would have been cited or arrested. Rather than involve these students in the court system, the district referred them to counselors or other personnel for intervention or support. Just 7 percent of students failed to complete the diversion program, resulting in their referrals to Los Angeles County Probation.

Donna Groman, an L.A. Superior Court Judge, said LAUSD’s new discipline policy benefits students. She’s worked to raise awareness about the KKIS initiative.

Donna Groman, L.A. Superior Court Judge.

Donna Groman, L.A. Superior Court Judge.

“We’re doing a lot of outreach, speaking to schools and just trying to make sure schools are developing an alternative to the justice system,” she said. The fact that LAUSD is the nation’s second largest school district means that its efforts to keep kids out of court may influence other districts across the country to follow suit, she said.

Arresting and citing students for minor violations didn’t help youth but often resulted in them missing school to attend court dates, Groman continued.

“Research shows that every level of involvement in the juvenile justice system can cause disengagement from school,” she said. “School is the greatest protective factor that kids have. If they’re engaged in school, they generally don’t end up in our court for criminal conduct.”

Groman added that LAUSD’s diversion program allows students to get the mental health services they need instead of waiting months for court dates with no help in sight for their behavioral problems. Today, the students Groman sees in court are typically repeat offenders rather than students without track records. If she sees a student who’s only committed one offense, it’s usually because of something particularly egregious, such as causing physical harm during a fight, she said.

Tracy Kenny, an attorney with the Judicial Council of California Center for Families, Children and the Courts, said that restorative justice policies in schools not only benefit children but the courts as well.

“Courts can be important partners in understanding the impact of policy,” said Kenny, who helped organize the 2013 KKIS summit of community leaders and public servants.

She said that truancy citations were not a good use of the courts’ time. Courts began to dismiss such cases, and in 2012, L.A. County’s 13 Informal Juvenile and Traffic Courts for truants and other offenders closed. That same year, LAUSD introduced a truancy diversion program, resulting in the district largely doing away with truancy sweeps and ticket task forces during the first 90 minutes of school.

As a result of the truancy diversion program, LAUSD reduced truancy citations by 78 percent (3,356 to 726) from 2010 to 2012. Last school year, the district issued just 370 referrals for daytime curfew, or truancy, violations to Youth Centers. All but 34 of those cases were resolved without involving L.A. County Probation.

As the push for restorative justice grows nationwide, LAUSD is not only citing fewer students for minor infractions but suspending fewer also. In May 2013, the school board passed the School Climate Bill of Rights to ban suspensions for willful defiance. This catchall category included infractions like talking back or cursing and faced criticism from activists who said they led to racial disparities in school discipline.

After eliminating willful defiance suspensions, the suspension rate in LAUSD dropped to 1.3 percent, half of L.A. County’s rate of 2.8 percent and more than three times lower than the state rate of 4.4 percent.

But community organizers such as McGowan question whether the district’s impressive suspension rate tells the whole story about discipline in LAUSD. His organization represents students in South Los Angeles schools, where they’re subject to informal suspensions, he said.

“They find a room to send them,” he said of local schools. “They’re not going to call it in-school suspensions, but one high school has a Room 100 where they send kids.”

McGowan also asserted that schools sometimes remove students “having a bad day” from class by asking parents to pick them up.

“They’re sending kids out of the classroom for extended periods of time,” he said. “They’re just not counting it as out-of-school suspensions.”

Earl Perkins, LAUSD’s assistant superintendent of school operations, denied McGowan’s claims.

Earl Perkins

Earl Perkins, LAUSD’s assistant superintendent of school operations. Photo: The Council of Black Administrators of LAUSD

“Informal suspensions are not in our makeup,” he said. “There might have been one case. We have referral rooms for students, but it’s not suspension. They may go out of class, but it’s not suspension. We don’t have ghost suspensions. It’s not supposed to be happening. If it does, it’s dealt with very severely.”

But like McGowan, Kim McGill, a Youth Justice Coalition organizer, expressed concerns about the tactics LAUSD uses to lower its rate of suspensions and expulsions. She said that some schools pressure families to transfer their children to continuation or alternative schools to keep discipline numbers down.

“Our main concern is that schools are pushing students out of the comprehensive school district,” she said. “Our concern is that schools can reformat things so it looks like expulsion [but] has a different name.”

Perkins said that students only attend continuation schools once administrators have exhausted all other options. Sending students to these schools is a last resort.

McGowan wants schools to take steps to remedy discipline problems, especially giving teachers the support they need. His concerns echo those raised in the recent L.A. Times article about how teachers feel ill equipped to manage their classrooms under LAUSD’s new discipline policy.

“If they don’t have the skills, they should be trained on those skills,” he said of teachers, “but that hasn’t been the case.”

Perkins disagrees, arguing that some teachers want students disciplined for minor offenses. He takes pride in the district’s dramatic suspension drop in recent years. He pointed out that during the 2007-08 school year, the district had accumulated 75,000 suspension days. Last school year, that number plummeted to just more than 5,000.

“We don’t want kids sent home because they didn’t bring their homework or didn’t bring a pencil to class. We work with them to address the behavior,” Perkins said. “We have a long way to go, but we have a good policy. It’s working.”

Nadra Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She has written for a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles News Group, the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and About.com.

This story is part of a series funded by The Stuart Foundation on behalf of the California Chief Justice’s Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court Initiative.

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