Suspending and expelling students have become commonplace in many states, including California. More than 700,000 California students, predominantly black and Latino, were suspended or expelled during the 2010-2011 school year.
In Richmond, Calif., teachers and school administrators have cut the local district's student suspensions in half in six years, from 14,421 in 2004-2005 to 7,024 in 2010-2011, in part by adopting a youth court program and other new approaches to discipline.
Impacting Student Investment
Robert, a talkative sixth grader in Richmond, Calif., has been suspended three times from his elementary school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. If he gets suspended one more time, he says he might get expelled. [NPR has withheld his last name because he is a minor.]
Getting expelled may sound extreme for a kid as young as Robert. But the most recent data in California from 2003-2004 show almost half of total expulsions statewide cited vague offenses, including "willfully defying the authority of school personnel" and "disruption of school activities."
Some teachers say suspending students from school does not change behavior; it just puts kids further behind and makes it extra difficult for students who rack up multiple suspensions while still in elementary school.
For Megan Macpherson, an elementary school teacher in Richmond, the most stressful part of the process is helping suspended students catch up.
"If I'm in the middle of a math unit and students are gone, that's five new objectives they don't get to learn," she says.
It's also difficult for their classmates if there are collective learning goals a class is trying to meet, explains Macpherson, who sometimes "really disagree[s] with suspensions." Many adults in Richmond share Macpherson's concerns about school discipline and student investment.
"In past years, it's been really hard to keep kids invested in school because once they fall behind, it's embarrassing to be behind their peers. And [for suspended students] to take that risk to try [to catch up], it's almost too much," she adds.
'Back In The Hands Of Teachers'
Elementary school students in Richmond who do stay invested likely end up at Richmond High School, where Assistant Principal Kibby Kleiman is in charge of discipline.
Historically, the high school had high rates of suspension, expulsion and dropout. Suspensions were common for tardiness to class and other minor offenses. Worried that these punishments were keeping too many kids out of the classroom, Richmond High made a plan to reduce those numbers.
In the past, a fight between students would have resulted in an automatic five-day suspension. "We absolutely would have sent the students home," Kleiman explains. Today, Kleiman says those same students would stay in school, talk through the problem and agree on a solution.
"Now what we do is put [discipline] back in the hands of teachers and say to teachers, 'You're the first step. What do you want to do to adjudicate this?'" he explains.
Evaluating Real Risks
Critics of taking a softer approach to discipline say dropping traditional punishments altogether could compromise school safety. Ken Trump, director of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services, says reforms need to be balanced.
"Putting an emphasis on restorative justice and prevention programs only on one hand is no more appropriate than putting all your emphasis or most of your emphasis on security and emergency preparedness on the other hand," Trump says.
According to Trump, "zero tolerance" policies have gotten a bad name because of high-profile cases where administrators lacked common sense. The suspension of a 5-year-old student for swearing may make the news, but Trump says those kinds of cases are not the norm.
"Most school administrators do not get up in the morning, go to work, throw a dart at a dartboard with a bunch of students' names and say, 'I'm going to ruin that student's life,'" he says.
But school administrators are responsible for evaluating real risks like kids bringing guns to school, and Trump sees zero tolerance policies as effective solutions.
A Welcome Alternative
Still, administrators at Richmond High appreciate the flexibility of their new discipline methods. Physical safety issues are still dealt with by staff, but for lesser offenses, the school has adopted a program called "Youth Court." Peers listen to both sides and come up with consequences other than suspension.
On a Thursday afternoon, Richmond High's Youth Court is in full swing as student defense advocate Nestor Guzman makes his opening statement. His client, a tenth grader, was caught leaving campus during school hours.
"[My client] has admitted that leaving school campus was wrong and is willing to receive Saturday school," Guzman tells the makeshift courtroom.
After a presentation by Guzman and a student prosecutor, the jury, comprised of six seniors, comes to a decision: the student has to write an apology letter to the school counselor, attend tutoring, and serve on the jury for the next youth court case a welcome alternative to a suspension for a student who had already racked up 43 absences this school year.
This story was produced by Youth Radio.