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Expulsion epidemic draws national attention

By the Notebook on Dec 12, 2011 12:50 PM
Photo: Tomas Ovalle Photography

Teresa Arredondo stands with her son in front of his elementary school in Bakersfield, Calif.

The national issue of high rates of expulsion and suspension that disproportionately affect students of color, highlighted locally by a study earlier this year, is the subject of this investigative report just published by the Center for Public Integrity. The Center is a Notebook partner through the Investigative News Network.  

by Susan Ferriss
for the Center for Public Integrity

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — As he waited for his first disciplinary appeal hearing to begin this fall, the sixth-grade student began sobbing.

He was barely 11 years old. He had been expelled again — for the rest of the school year — from his Bakersfield elementary school district, this time for alleged sexual battery and obscenity.

The offense: “Slapping a girl on the buttock and running away laughing,” according to school documents.

The boy’s pro bono attorney, a retired FBI agent, was appalled.

“This, on his record, puts him right up there next to the kid who raped somebody behind the backstop,” said Tim McKinley, who spent 26 years in the bureau, much of it locking up murderous members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

For the boy’s local school board in Kern County, the punishment fits the crime. It upheld a panel’s initial approval of expulsion.

For McKinley, the discipline is dramatic overkill sure to prove counterproductive for both the child and the community at large.

These days such disagreements are hardly unusual. In California’s southern Central Valley, Kern County is at the leading edge of a contentious debate over where to draw the line in exacting school discipline. Teachers want a safe environment in which to teach. Parents want to know their children are secure and not getting bullied. And no-nonsense school districts in this conservative oil and agribusiness region are suspending and expelling students for a broad range of indiscretions.

Meanwhile, a national reform movement is growing, fueled by reports that suspension and expulsion policies are disproportionately targeting minorities, and doing more harm than good by killing kids’ attachment to school and putting many on a fast track to failure.

Roots of a trend

Since the 1970s, multi-day, at-home suspensions and long-term expulsions have been on the rise nationally, many of them meted out, not for violence, but for lesser violations like insubordination, according to research by associates of the Civil Rights Project of the University of California at Los Angeles.

Punishment of minority students is rising especially rapidly, the researchers have found. Between 1973 and 2006, the percent of black students suspended at least once during their K-12 years grew from 6 to 15 percent nationwide while Latinos’ rate rose from 3 to almost 7 percent. White students’ rate grew more slowly, from about 3 to almost 5 percent.

A root cause for the rise in removal of students is fear, especially fear of gun violence. The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act required each state — as a condition of federal funding — to enact laws mandating a year-long expulsion of any student caught with a firearm, with little local discretion to reduce the duration of the punishment.

The “zero tolerance” phenomenon accelerated after the shocking 1999 suicidal shooting spree by two students at Colorado’s Columbine High School, which killed 15 and injured 24.

Against that backdrop, state legislatures began adding more specific infractions that could lead to suspensions and expulsions. California lawmakers, for example, approved a law in 2008 barring students from using cell phones and email for “cyber bullying,” and this year voted to add social networks to that mix.

At the local level, school boards, administrators and individual schools began exercising their discretion more broadly in deciding how tough to be in their interpretation of behavior codes.

Kern County schools exemplify this trend, with expulsions doubling in a decade.

A focus on discipline

Kern County has a rugged but colorful history. The 2007 movie There Will Be Blood was inspired by writer Upton Sinclair’s tales of brutal ambition in Kern’s early-20th-century oil fields. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was a scathing portrait of Depression-era abuse of migrants here. And in the 1960s, Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers Union in Kern and waged bitter strikes.

In addition to the oil fields here, residents have been drawn to harvest grapes and other crops that cover a large portion of Kern’s 8,000 square miles. Today, Kern produces 10 percent of U.S. petroleum and brings in the third-highest agricultural revenue of any county in America. Residents also work in mines, the aerospace industry and on military bases. Kern’s biggest city, Bakersfield, is home to a California state university campus and a robust country music scene founded by “Okie” native sons Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.

But many of its residents are far from rich. In 2009, about 22 percent of all residents and 30 percent of children lived below the poverty line. Most of Kern’s students countywide are ethnic minorities; in fact Latinos are now the majority.

Politically, Kern is a Republican stronghold, with 44 percent GOP registration, 35 percent Democratic and 17 percent independent. Traditional-values activists have been a strong presence on the board of the largest of the county’s 48 school districts, the Kern High School District, and they haven’t shrunk from approving expulsions of students charged with misbehavior.

Despite its sprawling geography, Kern County was home to only 173,365 students, or fewer than 3 percent of all of California’s students last year. But it was responsible for 14 percent of the state’s total of 18,648 expulsions, according to data reported by schools to the California Department of Education.

Because of its no-nonsense approach, Kern ended up with an expulsion rate of nearly 15 students for every 1,000 pupils last year, according to an iWatch News analysis of California’s discipline data for 2010-2011. That’s a rate four times greater than California’s average for the same year and more than seven times the national average for 2006, the most recent year available.

In the Kern High School District, 11 high schools reported expelling more than 100 students each last year. Bakersfield High School, in Kern’s biggest city, reported ejecting 232 of its 2,755 pupils.

Most students are expelled from an entire district, not just their school, for a semester or a full year as punishment.

Christine Lizardi Frazier, Kern County’s superintendent of schools, paused when asked if she thought some of the hundreds of expelled Kern students might not have better been handled through some other sort of in-school discipline or special counseling. Frazier’s responsibilities include supervising nine county-run alternative “community” schools designed to serve kids kicked out of their regular county districts.

Schools are trying to be selective when they expel pupils, she said, but must be sure to think about getting kids out who jeopardize safety.

“They are not being expelled for pushing and shoving,” Frazier said. For schools, “it is really hard to look away when they’re bringing a gun or a knife or selling drugs.”

But the statistics in Kern tell a more complicated story.

The iWatch News analysis shows that relatively few of Kern’s 2,578 expelled students were accused of serious violations that actually require an administrator to urge expulsion of a student. One of those violations is brandishing a knife — 15 reported cases in Kern last year — and another is possessing or furnishing a firearm. Only one expulsion case was reported in Kern last year resulting from a statute specifically prohibiting firearms at school, according to individual school data released by the state in September of this year.

Instead, the majority of Kern expulsions fell into several broad categories encompassing a range of allegations for which administrators have discretion — discretion to recommend expulsion or some other punishment to local school boards, which have the ultimate authority.

One of the most common categories for which Kern students were expelled is associated with fist fights, or what schools call “mutual combat.” The offense is “causing, attempting to cause or threatening to cause physical injury to another person,” for which 522 Kern students were ousted. Another 142 were expelled for violating one of two other codes with narrower language charging a student with “willfully” injuring another in an incident that was not self-defense.

Another most common reason for expulsions in Kern was use, possession or sale of intoxicants, a single broad infraction that can range from accusations of drinking a beer to using street drugs or pilfered prescription drugs. Schools expelled 843 students in Kern for this violation.

Last year, school reports show, expulsion numbers in Kern were also driven up by an unusually large number of two other types of alleged infractions: disruption or willful defiance of authority, and obscenity, habitual profanity or vulgarity.

More Kern students — 232 — were expelled last year for disruption or defiance of authority than for drug dealing or possession of dangerous objects. In Los Angeles County, which has nine times the number of students as Kern, only 89 students were expelled for defiance. Kern schools also expelled far more students than Los Angeles for obscenity and profanity, 105 compared to 39. In fact, last year, more than one in four expulsions statewide for obscenity or vulgarity occurred in Kern County.

Some disciplinary specialists consider accusations of defiance and profanity, especially, to be highly subjective, and argue that they should rarely be grounds for expulsion.

Others worry that expulsions are being handed down in a discriminatory manner.

According to raw numbers supplied by the Kern High School District, students identified as Latino, who are today 55 percent of district enrollment, were roughly 60 percent of those expelled over a five-year period; whites were 32 percent of enrollment and 22 percent of the expelled; blacks were less than 8 percent of enrollment but about 15 percent of expelled pupils.

In 2006, East Bakersfield High School reported expelling 30 out of 115, or 26 percent, of its African American students, according to data the school submitted to the U.S. Department of Education as part of a national survey for its Office for Civil Rights.

Numbers aside, no one in authority in Kern County is apologizing. Bryan Batey, a parent and president of the board of trustees of the Kern High School District — where most of the expulsions occur — defends his district’s decisions.

“There has been no call for a change from students’ parents or the community,” Batey said. “No one is running for the board on a platform of keeping obscenity-spewing or drug-selling kids in [regular] school.”

But for McKinley, now a family attorney in Kern with the nonprofit Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance Inc., the data is troubling.

Kern’s unusually high rates of expulsion “show there is something seriously wrong going on here,” the former G-man said. “You can’t tell me kids here are any worse than in Los Angeles or other places,” he said.

Troubling links

McKinley’s complaints dovetail with similar concerns that have been expressed about discipline in other states.

A study released in July out of Texas strongly suggests that frequent suspension and expulsion is counterproductive to putting vulnerable students on a path to graduation.

Sponsored by the nonpartisan, Lexington, Ky.-based Council of State Governments, the study tracked, for six years, all Texas students from seventh grade through their senior year. It found that a startling 60 percent were suspended or expelled at least once, but on average, eight times.

About 15 percent of the nearly 1 million Texas students tracked were referred to an alternative educational program as a result of being disciplined, and 8 percent were sent to a juvenile-justice education program for an extended time.

Almost 75 percent of the state’s special education students experienced suspension or expulsion. And among a large core group of students suspended or expelled 11 times or more, about 60 percent failed to finish high school.

The analysis also found that 97 percent of disciplinary actions in Texas were at the discretion of local school directors, not based on laws requiring expulsion. Black students were 31 percent more likely than students of other ethnicities to receive discretionary discipline when the researchers controlled for variables other than race.

A separate report released in October by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, highlighted evidence of racially disproportionate discipline elsewhere.

According to the policy center’s report, discipline data collected in 2010 in North Carolina showed that of all black students cited for a first-time cell phone violation in schools, 32 percent were given out-of-school suspension. But less than 15 percent of white students received the same punishment for the same violation.

Cases handled by the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union reflect similar themes. In one such case, the ACLU represented a Native American eighth-grader in the California mountain city of Bishop who was handcuffed by a school police officer in 2005 after the boy refused to give up a bandanna that was a family gift. The officer said the bandanna violated school dress codes, and the boy was suspended, along with other children who had gathered to protest.

Accused of disproportionately suspending Native American children for defiance, the boy’s district reached a settlement in 2007 to incorporate diversity and conflict-resolution training into staff development.


Persuaded that harsh discipline has become counterproductive, a growing cohort of reformers are searching for a different approach. One of the most prominent among them is Judge Steven Teske of Georgia’s Clayton County Juvenile Court. He testified in 2010 before the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor that more than 90 percent of referrals from schools to courts in his county stemmed “from minor school disciplinary matters that should have been handled in schools.”

Teske helped spearhead policies to send more students in trouble to conflict-skills classes and mediation. He credits the changes — which  began in 2004 — with helping Clayton County increase graduation rates by 21 percent and decrease juvenile felony rates by 51 percent. In California’s San Francisco County, where district board trustees have adopted a policy to reduce suspensions and expulsions, not a single pupil was expelled last year for disruption or defiance.

In Southern California, the board of trustees of the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2007 adopted a “positive behavior support” policy to switch gears and reward good behavior, while providing more counseling support for students who are acting out. Parents had complained about students in elementary school being suspended for failing to complete work and for “defiant” speech.

“We really don’t want to expel for defiance,” said Isabel Villalobos, the Los Angeles school district’s coordinator of student discipline and expulsion support services. “If you ask adults to define defiance, they all have a different answer.”

The  Children’s Defense Fund and various foundations are also working on projects to urge the adoption of alternative discipline. They warn that removing students from classrooms at high rates creates a “pipeline to prison” for those most at risk of dropping out and getting involved in crime.

The Obama Administration has also joined the debate. In July, the administration announced the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, which is supposed to develop guidelines to help schools change disciplinary and behavior-management methods, and more judiciously apply suspensions and expulsions.

The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is involved, and the administration awarded the Council for State Governments $400,000 to oversee a two-year “consensus-building” project to get local and state educators collaborating on ways to reform disciplinary procedures. The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention are lead agencies in this initiative, which also aims to improve data collection from schools to measure discipline and student profiles.

“Ensuring that our educational system is a doorway to opportunity — and not a point of entry to our criminal justice system — is a critical, and achievable, goal,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.

The administration has more aggressive approaches as well. The Department of Education will not discuss details, but Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other education officials confirmed in October 2010 that the department was reviewing possible disproportionate discipline in districts in Wilmington, Del., Salamanca, N.Y., Winston-Salem, N.C., San Juan, Utah, and Rochester Minn.

Earlier this fall, the department’s civil rights division struck an agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District requiring that the district take additional steps to “report disparate discipline rates” for black students and “eliminate inequitable and disproportionate discipline practices.”

A logical process?

Kern officials say their intent is not to simply be punitive, but to implement a process that follows a series of logical steps.

 “We don’t have an agenda for how many kids we need to have disciplined, or how many kids you can’t discipline,” said Michael Zulfa, the Kern High School district’s assistant superintendent of instruction. “We try to find that appropriate ground,” Zulfa said, “where student behavior really dictates what we’re doing in our disciplinary policies.”

Kern County has high schools in other districts, but Zulfa’s is the biggest entity schooling teens here. Some of its schools are beginning to use “positive behavioral intervention and support,” but the overarching policy is “progressive discipline,” said Otis Jennings, who oversees discipline in the district. Batey, the Kern High school district board president, said most expulsions are “the icing on the cake” delivered after a student has already gotten into trouble and received detention, suspension or Saturday work detail.

Kern school officials say they try to help troubled students, but argue they can do only so much, especially given the state’s fiscal crisis.

John Teves, Kern High School District spokesman, said that since campuses typically have five or fewer staff counselors, “the bulk of their work has to be devoted to a student’s academic progress.”

Ten school psychologists for the whole 37,500-population district, Teves said, are focused on the needs of about 3,500 special education students scattered on various campuses.

As of last year, the Kern County Mental Health Department is trying to address misbehavior among young children by tapping into California’s Proposition 63 mental-health fund, which voters approved in 2004 and comes from a tax on millionaires. Counties are given a share of the money, and Kern is now using some of its share to pay for therapists to be posted at 10 elementary and middle-schools.

With the program’s placement of a full-time therapist and a case manager last year at the Almond Tree Middle School in the Kern County town of Delano, The Bakersfield Californian reported that expulsions dropped in one year at that school from 25 to 14 and suspensions from 643 to 228.

Deanna Cloud, children’s care coordinator for the Kern County Mental Health Department, said there are no plans at this point to expand the Proposition 63 program to secondary schools. “We’ve had a struggle getting onto high school campuses, generally,” she said. “Many do not want mental-health treatment on campuses because it takes away from educational time.”

The expulsion track

In the Kern High School District, the board usually reviews recommendations for expulsions in bulk, Batey said, sometimes a few dozen at a time. Board members are given summary reports of each student’s history. It’s not often that a parent appears before the board to protest because so few expulsions are ever appealed in Kern.

The district is required to notify parents about their rights, and gives parents forms in Spanish and English explaining that they can ask for a hearing, or that they can relinquish that right. Batey said he realizes that in this area where immigrant parents often don’t know English well, “parents not familiar with the culture might not even know to ask” for a chance to weigh evidence.

Only six appeals out of a total of 2,578 expulsions last year were taken by parents all the way to the Kern County Board of Education. That’s the final procedural tier outside court that begins with an appeals panel of impartial educators, followed by the local school board.

Zulfa acknowledged that expulsion can stain a record in the final years of school, especially if a student is preparing for college or to enter the military, unless a student serves punishment and it is expunged.

But, ultimately, he said, expulsion can also prove to be a positive experience because it means students are separated from the negative influence of others or threats from other students and get a chance to receive more counseling and reform their behavior.

Teachers, of course, have their own unique perspective. Brad Barnes, president of the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association, didn’t claim to have a definitive analysis of Kern County’s expulsions, but noted that as class size had increased, “the teachers reported discipline was going down and down.”

Sometimes removal of a disruptive child or a student who strikes others is the only answer, he said.

Teachers with no classroom aides now are under daily pressure to improve Bakersfield’s relatively low test scores, Barnes said. Instructors need stability to instruct others effectively in classes that have swollen to more than 45 students.

Years of layoffs — five counselors were let go last year — have decimated staff at 42 primary and middle schools in the Bakersfield City Elementary School district, Barnes said. That leaves only three schools with a single counselor each, and nine others who handle a variety of chores in school offices, counseling among them. For 27,490 students, there are only five behavioral outreach specialists and 11 traveling psychologists, according to the district.

Vickie Shoenhair, president of the Kern High School Teachers Association, said the power to expel is necessary, but she believes it can push some vulnerable students into dropping out. “Lots of the families of the migrant kids,” she said, “just have them go to work the fields.”

Teachers no longer have time to get to know students in crowded classrooms, Shoenhair said, and to privately coax them into talking about troubles. “There needs to be an individual on the campus who can take the time to find out what the behavioral issue is coming from,” she said. “There is not a safety net.”

She said kids “have baggage like I’ve never seen,” with pressure to join gangs, get involved in drugs, and work to earn money for their families or stay home to take care of younger siblings.

A position paper issued in March 2011 by the Education Law Center and the Juvenile Law Center argued that the federal No Child Left Behind Act creates a “perverse incentive” to encourage the removal of lower-performing students from schools. Schools can be declared failing if test scores among all students do not improve.

Asked if she agreed with the opinion in this position paper, Shoenhair said she did agree, and that it is “is sad” to rely so heavily on this type of testing to measure success.

Teves, the Kern High district spokesman, strongly disputed any connection. “I have heard of other school districts employing this tactic,” Teves said in an email. “I can assure you, the ‘ethic’ of the KHSD is such that no student would be disciplined for the purposes of an advantage on a test score.”

Alternative education

Since California requires that expelled students still be offered some type of public education, Kern County fulfills that commitment in a couple of different ways.

Last year, the Kern High School District estimates, about 600 of its 2,040 expelled students were kept within the district and sent to other regular high schools or to district “continuation” schools. Continuation schools provide fewer hours of class time and fewer academically advanced classes, but they are designed to help students who have been truant, are pregnant or are teen parents,  or who otherwise are at risk of dropping out.

But the majority of kids expelled in Kern County — including about 400 elementary and junior high-age children — are referred to county-run “community” schools. These schools — and additional county schools for juveniles in detention or probation — saw their combined enrollments soar by more than 30 percent in Kern between 2003 and 2008.

Community school classes are smaller than regular schools, but there are few college prep opportunities or extracurricular activities. Basic expenditures per pupil in 2008-2009 were estimated at about $5,954, about $300 more than the state’s basic spending per student.

Schools officials say there are benefits to the community schools. Jeanne Hughes, principal for the community schools, said that if an expelled student hasn’t had a psychological assessment in a regular school, he or she will get one at the county-run school.

“Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom,” Hughes said, “before you get the resources and help you need.”

Frazier said her teachers work hard to help many kids turn lives around and graduate from their home schools, or from a community school if they are seniors and her school is their last chance. Her office website notes that since the opening of community schools in 1987 Kern County’s overall dropout rate has been reduced by half, from about 41 percent in 1986, the highest in the state.

But no one doubts that the obstacles to success for some expelled students are daunting. Frazier and Hughes agree that about 50 percent of the expelled students who go through their institutions and then return to their home schools end up coming back again after another expulsion.

In a 2009-10 school accountability report card, which schools are required to file with the state, the nine Kern community school sites reported that only 2 percent of its black students were proficient or advanced in English language arts, math or science. Only 6 percent of Latinos and 10 percent of white students were proficient or advanced in English language arts.

Probation officers regularly visit Kern’s community schools, where minors on juvenile justice probation — about 1,000 of them last year — can also be enrolled. Despite requisite “rehabilitation” plans for expelled students, critics question whether kids expelled for relatively minor offenses should be mixed in with youngsters who have been in more serious trouble.

“For some of these kids,” McKinley added, “that’s like being sent in to learn ‘How to Hotwire a Car 101.’”

Tracking what ultimately happens to expelled kids appears to be more art than science. The Kern High School district forwards a list of students sent to community schools to the county superintendent’s office, but doesn’t keep track of whether the expelled show up.

If an expelled student does attend a community school and finishes the expulsion period, the county’s standard procedure is to reciprocate by sending the district a list of names of students eligible to return. If they don’t return, Zulfa said, the Kern High School district contacts their last known address to invite them back.

Zulfa asserted that most expelled students do return and graduate on time from regular schools. But he acknowledged that the district can’t document how many, and the claim cannot be verified because it wasn’t until 2006 that California assigned ID numbers to students for the purposes of database tracking.

This year, in a count considered improved if not perfect, California used the student ID numbers for the first time to estimate 2009-2010 dropout rates. Kern overall was on par with California’s 74 percent rate of graduation for seniors who were tracked,  and an 18 percent dropout rate. Another 7 percent hadn’t obtained degrees and were still enrolled, or were seeking a General Education Development certificate.

In a county with high rates of poverty, large numbers of foster children and English language learners, Frazier said, “We are doing many things right to be so close to the state average.”

Countywide, however, Latinos’ graduation rate was only 71 percent and black students’ rate was even lower, at 66 percent.

The Kern High School District’s 80 percent graduation rate was better than the county’s or the state’s, which, Zulfa said, shows that his district’s attempts to engage kids in school is working better than in some places. Graduation rates for Latinos were 77 percent and for blacks 78 percent.

Batey, the high school district board president, said some expelled kids, especially those with a long history of trouble, probably do drop out. “Do we lose some? Yes, probably,” he said, but there are many reasons a student might drop out. And absent the sort of hard data that was used in Texas, it’s impossible to know how many of those who didn’t get diplomas in Kern had a history of suspensions and expulsion.

A complex case

Many of the thorny issues in the expulsion debate are on display in the case of the sixth-grade boy whom McKinley, the pro bono lawyer, has represented in a series of hearings.

It is far from the youngster’s first spot of trouble. He was expelled in third grade for “flipping off a teacher,” a school report says, and for “hitting the thigh of an activity leader” and swinging his backpack in anger. The boy was charged that time with “assault or battery, as defined in the [state] Penal Code, upon a school employee,” and threatening to cause injury to another person. His mother, Teresa Arredondo, says one incident began when her son, in third grade, took a tumble at school, and a teacher laughed and he became upset. Arredondo said the teacher later apologized for her reaction.

In fourth grade, the boy was suspended for two days for “poor achievement” and failure to do assigned work. In fifth grade, he was charged with “disobedience, defiance of authority, fails to do assigned work, poor attitude,” and he received one day of at-home suspension. Earlier this year, the boy was given another day of suspension for disobedience, defiance of authority and disrespect toward an adult.

The school district says the boy has received counseling but McKinley, his lawyer, contends that records show that the school’s approach has been almost exclusively punitive. “I have a feeling,” he said, “that counseling means, ‘Don’t do that again.’”

Before his initial appeal hearing in October, the boy had already been referred to the community school, where he was placed with other expelled elementary school students. He recalled a prior stint there in third grade, when he was too afraid to talk to anyone for a week. “I felt,” he said, “like I was going to jail.”

Arredondo, a farm labor supervisor, said that she has repeatedly asked for her son to be tested at school for special needs. Testing for special needs is a school’s obligation if a parent requests it or if a staff member notices that a student is struggling. Arredondo finally took her son on her own to a psychologist who said he might have an attention-deficit problem. The boy was prescribed some pills but they made him sleepy, so the family decided that he should stop taking them, she said.

The youngster has never had a psychological assessment at his school, a staff person at the school acknowledged, under questioning by McKinley, at the boy’s October hearing.

While she didn’t defend her son’s alleged prank — swatting a girl’s buttocks — Arredondo called the charges of sexual battery and obscenity against him “crazy.”

She wonders if some lesser punishment might be appropriate, and because she feels that most teachers have expressed disdain for him for years, she wants to voluntarily transfer her son to another school within the district so he can get a fresh start.

“My son is not a sexual deviant,” she said in Spanish, her first language. “Children are not sexual deviants or criminals. But with the way the schools treat them, they’re going to turn them into that.”

At the boy’s first October appeal hearing, McKinley ran through his arguments before a panel of educators.

The boy is prepubescent. He turned 11 one day before he and another boy ran up to a female classmate and swatted her on the rear, laughing and saying, “Want to see what football players do?”

The girl testified that she felt uncomfortable and embarrassed by the prank. McKinley told the panel that his client wanted to apologize, which the boy did. McKinley then explained, quoting from statutes, his position that the boy’s behavior, while unquestionably wrong, did not rise to the legal definition of sexual battery at his age.

For a student to be guilty of sexual battery, McKinley said, the school’s burden is to prove the pupil acted out in a “lewd and lascivious” manner to obtain sexual gratification or to commit sexual abuse.

Randall Ranes, director of instructional support services at the Bakersfield City School District, said with a younger student, the district doesn’t think intent to obtain gratification or arousal applies. Proving that a student was sexually abusive should be enough to pursue an expulsion, he said. Arredondo signed a waiver to allow district officials to discuss her son’s case with the Center. But officials declined, saying it was not in the boy’s best interests.

McKinley and his client lost before the panel, and lost again later, by 3-2 votes, before the boy’s local school board at a subsequent hearing. Arredondo broke down in tears at that last hearing in late October, McKinley said. In interviews at her home in Bakersfield, she said she knows her son can learn. He builds things at home. He has done well on some parts of tests. He can go on the Internet and discover information and follow instructions.

Now, she said, he has no option but to go to the school for “bad kids.”

McKinley’s next step is an appeal to the County Board of Education. If that appeal is rejected, federal court could be the next step.

A drawn-out process

Another one of McKinley’s cases raises further questions about whether schools have grown “trigger happy” about expelling students.

In Bakersfield, a 10th-grade African-American girl’s parents wonder if she was ordered expelled from school last year in part because of snap judgments about black students.

“I know there is prejudice and stereotypes here, especially of blacks and Hispanics,” said the girl’s mother. “I’m from here.”

The parents, who sought pro bono help from McKinley, do not want their identities revealed. Their daughter was accused of engaging in a fight, and was told she was being expelled and would likely have to attend a community school.

The girl entered high school last year with college aspirations and a GPA of 3.54. But her older sister had been picked on by a group of girls, and the mother asked if her younger daughter could transfer to another school to avoid problems. The transfer request was turned down.

When a girl later physically attacked the woman’s daughter in a silent reading class held in a gym, the daughter swung back in self-defense, the mother said. The girl who attacked her daughter also struck a teacher who tried to intervene. But it was McKinley’s client who was blamed as an “assailant,” suspended at home for five days and told she would be expelled for a year for injuring another person and defiance of authority.

The girl’s mother protested, telling administrators she had heard that the teacher’s version of events would help exonerate her daughter.

At the girl’s appeal hearing, a recording of which was made available to the Center, the school administrator, under questioning, gave her version of the fight. She said the teacher was “hit in the jaw by the two young ladies” as they fought. Yet the teacher, when subsequently questioned at the same hearing, said McKinley’s client had not struck him. The teacher faulted McKinley’s client for defying him because she and another girl ignored an order to remain quiet after an argument erupted. But the teacher confirmed that she had not swung first and had stepped back when he stood in between the girls.

McKinley, using the California Public Records Act, had obtained a copy of an email from this teacher to the administrator shortly after the incident. In it, the teacher clearly stated that the other girl swung first and was the one who hit him. McKinley confronted the administrator with the email at the hearing, and asked if she had thought to include these details in her own reports. She said she had not.

Still, the administrator stuck to her recommendation for an expulsion.

“They both had an opportunity to stop when the teacher asked them,” the administrator said. “And they both continued to challenge each other.”

McKinley’s client also deserved expulsion, the administrator said, because she had already been suspended for a previous fight, had received a lunch-time detention and been offered “conflict mediation.”

But the girl, when she spoke before the panel, said she had not instigated either of these fights, and that in the first one, no blows were ever exchanged. “I was getting attacked in both of them,” she said. She also said the conflict mediation she received was only a meeting, alone, with a staff person, that didn’t include any other girls.

In the official document recommending expulsion, which was read at the hearing, McKinley’s client was described as “potentially harmful” to students and staff. The document went to say that there were “no other means of correction” available other than expulsion.

In the end, McKinley told the panel that his client may have failed to exercise good judgment by arguing with the girl who provoked her or reacting physically to being attacked. “But it was the judgment of a 14-year-old,” he said, and it was “self-defense.”

At the hearing, McKinley also called another student to testify that she had been in three fights at school, and had not been expelled. “The only difference between that girl and my client was that the other girl was white and [my client] was black,” McKinley said.

The panel reversed McKinley’s client’s expulsion. District officials declined to discuss the case, citing privacy concerns, although the girl’s parents signed a waiver allowing officials to talk about what happened.

While she and her parents fought her expulsion last year, McKinley’s client was out of regular school for nearly two months. She fell behind, and her grades declined. She has struggled to catch up this year and is hoping to transfer to a new school.

The girl’s parents were astounded that they had to get a lawyer to help them obtain information from the school and interrogate administrators to make their case that their daughter should not be expelled.

“This is a child’s life,” the girl’s father said. “Their education is so serious, and they seem ready to so easily throw that all away. They are turning good kids into bad kids.”

Data editor David Donald contributed to this story.

More coverage of the expulsion issue by members of the Investigative News Network is available from the Center for Public Integrity. This story is republished with permission of the Center.

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Comments (20)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 12, 2011 5:03 pm

Better parenting will lead to far fewer expulsions. Point Blank !

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Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 12, 2011 9:45 pm

I wouldn't want that young man to slap either of my daughters on the behind and laugh about it. I'd be the one getting the lawyer if he was allowed to remain in my children's school. What his lawyer seems to write off as a relatively minor infraction, I view as the behaviors of someone who is potentially on his way to becoming a sexual predator.

Why is it that the rights of a few children with severe behavior problems almost always take precedence over the rights of the remaining children in the class? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, if you want to improve test scores, transfer those kids with the behavior problems out of the traditional public schools, and place them in special schools, where they can receive the education that they are entitled to. That way, teachers can focus on what they are paid to do (teach), without having to stop 50 or more times a day to deal with the misbehaviors of kids who aren't getting anything from the educational experience, other than attention for their horrible behaviors.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 12, 2011 10:02 pm

Very True--20% of the kids don't cooperate so they leave the traditional schools, leaving the remaining students able to learn and the teachers able to teach. It isn't brain surgery but it isn't really done either, much to my chagrin. Charters toss those kids after they receive payment and they still stink in comparison with the traditional schools. Hard to believe but true.

Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on December 13, 2011 12:05 pm

Expulsions in America’s public schools do not happen willy-nilly. Students are given due process and granted a hearing before they are removed from the system. In addition, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) protects students with anger management issues and the emotionally disturbed (many minorities are diagnosed as such) from being removed from a school, and the “Stay-Put Provision” law allows such students to remain in school even during the actual hearings. In Philadelphia from 2002 -2008, for example, not a single student was expelled from the District. Not that the District is free from violence, or those who perpetrate violence against other students; just read the Inquirer’s “Assault on Learning” series and look at the numbers. It is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to expel a student from a district (in Philadelphia, even the “permanently expelled” can reapply for admission after their punishment is served), and this is in light of the fact that many serious discipline incidents go unreported.

The article above bills expulsion as an unfair “epidemic” gaining “national attention,” but it ignores the everyday offenses of troubled youth and focuses on the outliers. The real victims in this situation are the 85-90 percent of America’s public school children who are being held hostage by the violent and unruly few. Yet somehow the Notebook consistently fails to address THIS issue. They campaign against a discipline system that is already lacking real teeth, which is counterproductive to establishing a culture of learning in all schools. If we want to save the education of the masses, we should advocate for better parenting, call for a return of traditional values in our schools and communities, and demand that ALL children respect each other, as well as their teachers, parents, and other authority figures.

Reports that portray expulsions as an “epidemic,” such as Youth United for Change’s “Zero Tolerance” report, do a disservice to public schools as well as the majority of motivated children working hard to receive an education.

For more on YUC’s questionable report, click here:

Submitted by One of the Good Ones (not verified) on December 13, 2011 5:24 pm

Great comment! I couldn't agree with you more.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on December 13, 2011 8:57 pm

Some quick comments from the editor to explain the Notebook's continued interest in this topic of high rates of expulsion as an issue of educational quality and equity.

-Philadelphians ought to be considering what approaches to discipline and to curtailing school violence are effective. We know that what many schools are doing now is not effective. There is a growing body of evidence in support of less punitive approaches to school discipline such as restorative justice. We are open to other topics for our reporting. We haven't seen a similar body of evidence that more systematic implementation of the traditional approach of suspensions and transfers to disciplinary schools advocated here by commenters is effective.

-In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world (that hasn't alleviated high crime rates), the issue of whether harsh school disciplinary policies not only mirror our ineffective criminal justice policies but also create a school-to-prison pipeline is a real concern to many in Philadelphia.

-Study after study provides evidence that harsh disciplinary actions are not meted out in a color-blind fashion. This article points to the finding from North Carolina that Black students were more than twice as likely to be suspended for a first-time cell phone offense compared to White students.

The statistics on student discipline out of Texas (the only state we're aware of where such data are compiled) give a sense of how things have changed and make a pretty strong case for talking about an "epidemic."  Quoting from this story: "a startling 60 percent were suspended or expelled at least once [between 7th and 12th grade], but on average, eight times. About 15 percent of the nearly 1 million Texas students tracked were referred to an alternative educational program as a result of being disciplined, and 8 percent were sent to a juvenile-justice education program for an extended time."

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 13, 2011 9:07 pm

Paul, I have a good bit of experience with expulsions from my days at Furness when Vallas sent the Audnreid students to Furness and Southern without additional teachers and behavioral supports. The failure is not just because of the School District's lack of positive programs. It also has to do with the Juvenile Justice system and their lack of positive rehabilitative services. Both systems are overwhelmed because of the breakdown of many of our communities due to poverty.

The juvenile justice system is not to be feared. It is designed to rehabilitate children and protect them from purely punitive justice. It should be used appropriately when necessary.

One of my fondest memories is of a student who upon his first day of school at Furness in February, started with one of Furness's finest. As I broke them apart, he greeted me with a, "Don't touch me man or I'll knock you the F out!" After a broohaha with an heroic NTA and several trips to juvenile court, we found he was a very troubled young man. I had him placed for a while. His mother thanked me.

Lo and behold he came down the street one afternoon a year or so later as I was standing on the schoolhouse steps at Furness. He held out his hand to shake mine. He said, "Thankyou Mr. Migliore. You saved my life. I was on the wrong track to ruin my life. You were the only one who ever took an interest in me."

There are probably hundreds of stories like that one played out every year in our schools. They usually go unnoticed. One of the problems is that our curriculum does not fit their needs or interests and they become lost in our schools.

Thank you for raising the issues. It is long overdue and there are no easy answers.

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Submitted by Christopher Paslay (not verified) on December 14, 2011 3:05 pm

Schools are first and foremost places of learning. Although the knowledge and skills acquired in school are not always academic (children learn socialization and how to establish interpersonal relationships, etc.), the primary function of a school should be instruction. All of this intensive behavior modification, remediation, and psychological counseling has somehow become tied-in with public education, and this is why there is such a breakdown in large urban school systems; schools cannot keep pace with the social, psychological, linguistic and cultural issues being heaped on them.

Dan Goldhaber, a research professor at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education, concluded that about 60 percent of student achievement is attributed to nonschool factors. The Educational Testing Service’s 2007 policy report “The Family: America’s Smallest School,” reveals how factors such as watching television, parent employment, nutrition, and out-of-wedlock births all significantly impact a student’s education, behavior, and attitude.

In other words, with the exception of the most basic provisions, social and behavioral remediations are the responsibility of the home, not the school; suburban districts do indeed have an “array of resources and interventions” at their disposal to help troubled children: they’re called PARENTS.

Schools must do what they can to address and remediate the behavioral and psychological problems of their students, but there will come a time when a line must be drawn. There IS a protocol that public schools follow, and by law, a series of interventions in most cases DOES take place before an expulsion. But when these interventions meet with limited success (including Positive Behavior Supports and Restorative Justice, both of which can only be done effectively in small, one-on-one situations), there will need to be a policy in place to keep the learning environment safe and organized, a policy that allows the majority of hard working students to get an education, and that policy is expulsion.

As for The Notebook’s obsession with race and their need to keep reminding everyone that expulsions “are not meted out in a color-blind fashion,” I’d like to ask what they are insinuating by this? It seems clear that they are suggesting that teachers and administrators in public schools are either racist, or culturally ignorant or insensitive. As an urban schoolteacher of 15 years, as a coach, as a mentor, and as a citizen of Philadelphia, I would have to beg to differ. Although this may have been the case 30 years ago (or in very limited situations today), I think the disparity in disciplinary measures by race has more to do with environmental factors such as poverty, education and employment; it’s documented that a higher number of minorities are impoverished, have a higher incidence of out-of-wedlock births, have poor nutrition, etc. These factors all impact a student’s behavior. Likewise, these factors impact a student’s ATTITUDE when responding to authority, which may explain why a cooperative student, who surrenders his cellphone with little resistence, may not get suspended for the infraction, while another student, who has a difficult home life and has not learned to deal with authority in a positive manner, might get hit with a suspension for a simple cellphone violation.

The hardworking motivated students should have a right to learn. Generally speaking, expulsions are the only reasonable way to accomplish this, in light of the tragic condition of American families, poor parenting, society’s attitude of entitlement, and the overall decline in respect for authority.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 14, 2011 4:19 pm

Our primary responsibility is to create a safe and nurturing environment in all schools for those hardworking motivated students who do want to learn -- that, as you so well say, is a right.

Without feeling safe, secure and cared about, children can not learn to their highest potential.

Submitted by Brody (not verified) on December 13, 2011 9:38 pm

Mr. Socolar- While I appreciate your point of view, this question bears repeating- Why is it that the rights of a few children with severe behavior problems almost always take precedence over the rights of the remaining children in the class?

As a suburban parent/urban educator, I can tell you that in my children's district, children with severe behavior problems are not allowed to run rough-shod over the teacher and the rest of the class. Parents in my home district are very vocal about their children's rights to an education that is free of bodily harm and constant disruptions.

While inclusion is the model embraced by districts across our country, most districts do not allow violent, chronically disruptive children in classrooms without full-time, one-on-one wraparounds. Why is it that, in Philadelphia, parents aren't busting down the doors of the principals, demanding that these disruptive, violent children be removed from their kids' classrooms?

You will never convince me that these students have a right to steal the education of their better-behaved classmates. It's my opinion that, by letting the chronically disruptive students remain in their regular schools, without full-time wraps, you are, in fact, an accomplice to "theft of education."

Submitted by Paul Socolar on December 14, 2011 12:41 am

Of course, parents and students have a right to an education that is free of bodily harm and constant disruptions. The reason the Notebook chose to reprint this story is that it raises important questions about whether relying on ever more expulsions of students is an effective, appropriate strategy for achieving that end.

The article doesn't delve into this, but better-funded suburban schools like your home district are more likely to have a array of resources and interventions at their disposal to minimize student disruption. And students from middle-class families are more likely to be offered second and third chances.

The two cases described in depth in the story - Arredondo's son and the 14-year-old girl - both seem worthy of discussion; they're not atypical of students involved with the disciplinary system in Philadelphia. The article encourages us to ask, "Can't anything else be done to intervene in cases like these, short of expelling these children to a disciplinary school?"

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2011 1:11 am

This obsession with expulsion statistics is really dangerous. In Philly schools, it leads to admin being afraid to take any actions -- with violent situations, oftentimes, because their "numbers" are too high.

Good schools don't tolerate severe misbehavior. Why do we expect urban youth to put up with the 5% of their peers who are causing serious misbehavior in the classroom? (This is one reason teachers leave urban areas-- they love their students, but they can't be effective instructors when "classroom management" is the solution extremely disruptive (and in many cases criminally violent) behavior.)

Irregular and permissive behavior systems in schools hurt everyone, probably most of all the students who are misbehaving. In Philly, on a daily basis in a high school, student often commit many offenses that would be legally classified as assault if they were adults in public. Yet in school we basically permit it, not because of some great restorative system, but because we have to keep the "numbers" down. Then we are surprised when these behaviors continue after school or after graduation?

The focus should be on improving the disciplinary schools, rather than eliminating them.

Expulsions shouldn't be frequent, and the focus should always be on services, etc. But for the students who consistently (and often violently) disrupt the educational process, alternative placement is necessary.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 14, 2011 1:49 am

It also seems like this article concerns district with a far different situation than Philadelphia. If I'm not mistaken, before Dr. Ackerman had come to town, it had been several years since the SDP had expelled any students. Even now, it's an extremely slow and relatively infrequent process. While this may be an interesting issue for general debate, it seems fairly irrelevant in the context of Philly, which is a much larger district that expels a fraction of the students of the districts in this article.

The problem in Philly is the opposite. If you slap someone in a Philly school, there's a decent chance that absolutely nothing will happen (and I don't mean nothing severe -- I mean nothing at all, and it's not for lack of evidence or administrative awareness) . Both over- and under-responses are problems.

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Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on December 14, 2011 4:52 am

The following is something I find confusing and irrational. This year, two of my students were sent to discipline schools because one smoked marijuana on school property and shared it with another student and another student had a knife in her book bag. Neither student was disruptive in class nor did they hang in the halls. Simultaneously, students who are extremely disruptive, fight, etc. are not expelled and often not suspended.

I agree models such as restorative justice are much more effective and holistic approaches to creating positive school learning environments than suspensions/expulsions. We need more school based social workers and time for teachers/administrators/social workers/ students / family members to collaborate. I assume this happens more often in wealthier school districts. That said, a system that expels students for carrying a knife but not using it is merely punitive. A student who gets caught with, yes, a controlled substance (marijuana) has to be addressed but why expulsion?

I guess it is easy to have a "check off" of which offenses immediately lead to expulsion even if the behaviors are not overly disruptive. Shouldn't each student's case be individual and based on what is best for the students and school?

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on December 14, 2011 7:32 am

This conversation is certainly going to be a hot topic because these issues have been festering for some time. I suggested years ago in many of our gatherings on these issues that we have an "alternative school" in every area of the city which would act as a "shared annex" to the schools in that area. Transferring behaviorally problematic students to those "alternative annexes" would be just like transferring students to a different program within the same school.

Those low level alternative schools should have restorative practices to help the student wholistically. When ready the student would be placed in a good setting for him which may be back at his regular school or maybe not. It is situational.

Serious and violent offenders who are clear and present dangers to others could be sent to a higher level more restrictive centralized school.

There is one thing for sure: If principals and AP's let disruptive students run amok in our schools, it breeds violence and destroys the climate of our schools. A prime example is what happened at Southern two years ago.

If there is "squad violence" and finghting, the way to deal with it that works is to have the ringleaders arrested and removed from the building. Their followers will then cool out. If you don't remove the ringleaders of violence, it is a recipe for disaster.

Every school should have proactive behavioral programs and supports to prevent problems from occurring and festering.

Learning can not take place in a disruptive climate. Every school needs to have a climate conducive for learning. That concept has been around for years. It is not going away.

We have a collective duty to protect the "good kids" from being harmed in any way by those who choose to be disruptive.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on December 14, 2011 7:26 pm

The 6th-grade boy featured in the story and photo has just had his expulsion overturned by the local school board, the Center for Public Integrity reports.

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