At some schools, behavior counseling is a key part of in-school suspension programs. (Photo by Fraser/Flickr, via EdSource)

More California schools are allowing disruptive students to serve suspensions on campus instead of sending them home. But experts said educators need to provide those students with high-quality behavior counseling for that approach to be successful.

Schools throughout the state have embraced in-school suspensions in recent years, as studies have shown that traditional out-of-school suspensions can hurt students’ academic performance and actually make behavior problems worse. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that prohibits California middle and elementary schools from suspending students and sending them home for willful defiance, defined in the state’s education code as “disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority” of school staff.

The new law is an expansion of the current ban on willful defiance suspensions in K-3 grades signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013.

But in-school suspensions must be done right to be an effective alternative, several experts interviewed by EdSource said.

“The goal should be to get to the root of the problem and get kids back in class as soon as possible. What’s counterproductive is if kids are sent to sit in a room with someone who’s just there to babysit and they’re not getting any support,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which analyzes racial inequities in public education. “That could just trigger further problems. … If you’re just replacing one with the other, in-school suspensions can be as bad or worse as out-of-school suspensions.”

Under the new law, which goes into effect in July 2020, teachers can still send students to the principal’s office for disruptive behavior — or behavior perceived to be disruptive — but principals cannot send students home as a punishment. Students must remain at school. Students who’ve committed more serious offenses, such as assault or selling drugs, can still be suspended out of school or expelled.

But even before the new law was enacted, districts were trying to reduce suspensions, including among African American students, who are on average suspended at three times the rate of their white peers, according to the most recent statewide data. Since 2012, the statewide suspension rate has dropped steadily among all groups, although the rate for African American students is still disproportionately higher. From 2011-12 to 2017-18, out-of-school suspensions for defiance across all student groups dropped by nearly 80 percentage points in California, from almost 200,000 to about 37,200.

One reason for the higher rate of suspensions among African American students is the vague definition of “willful defiance,” advocates have said. Defiance could be interpreted as anything from eating in class to cursing at school officials and teachers may unwittingly apply different suspension criteria to different student groups.

Out-of-school suspensions are linked to a host of other problems. Students who are suspended out of school are more likely to fall behind academically, drop out, or become involved with the juvenile justice system, according to a report by the Public Policy Research Institute and the Council of State Government’s Justice Center that examined millions of school and juvenile justice records.

Counseling, academic help for students

In an effort to improve campus climate and reduce behavior problems in the classroom, some schools have taken ambitious steps toward providing in-school suspension programs that include counseling, academic help and restorative justice practices, in which students talk with other students about their disruptive behavior, its causes and consequences.

Schools also have another incentive to offer in-school suspensions: Students serving those suspensions are not counted as absent, so schools still get “average daily attendance” money from the state, which is the main way schools in California are funded.

Finding money to pay for additional counselors and tutors to staff in-school suspensions can be challenging. California already has one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the country, at 708-to-1, according to the American School Counselor Association.

But schools can use money from their state funding allotment or raise funds from other sources, such as private foundation or government grants, said Dan Sackheim, a consultant with the California Department of Education.

The state also provides extensive online tips, guidelines and resources for schools to train staff on restorative justice and ways to encourage positive behavior in the classroom. Sackheim and his colleagues have also conducted more than 100 workshops, webinars and conferences around the state to help schools find alternatives to defiance suspensions.

Hemet Unified in Riverside County has not only adopted a comprehensive in-school suspension program, but gone even further in addressing campus climate and student behavior by providing a host of on-campus counseling and health services to all students. Students have access to drug treatment, immunizations, dental care, mindfulness curriculum, advice for healthy relationships, psychologists and social workers, among other services.

Hemet Unified, with about 21,800 students, has seen its willful defiance suspensions fall by half since 2015-16, from 1 percent to about half a percent.

In some cases, the district still turns to out-of-school suspensions to discipline students. But most are assigned in-school suspensions or counseling sessions, where they are assessed individually and given a plan according to their needs. In addition, students get academic help and work on homework assignments. Trained, certified teachers and counselors lead the program.

Hemet Unified’s in-school suspension plan, which began last year, has already yielded results. Only a third of students who were given in-school suspensions went on to be suspended again — a drop from nearly two-thirds the year before, said Tracy Piper, the district’s director of student support services. Even more promising, the out-of-school suspension rate for more serious offenses dropped by about half, depending on the school, she said.

“This means we’re saving the kids who are a one-off,” she said. “I’m thrilled. I’m expecting another big drop this year, although there’s a lot I’m still concerned about.”

‘My goal is to keep every kid in school every day’

Among her concerns are that African American and Latino students are still suspended at disproportionately high rates, she said. And the overall number of discipline referrals from teachers hasn’t changed, nor has the expulsion rate, which suggests that students who commit the worst offenses, such as bringing weapons to school, are not deterred by the new policies.

Piper also worries about students who don’t misbehave in class but still need help — students who may be depressed, anxious or suicidal but don’t get attention because they’re withdrawn.

Over time, Piper hopes the district’s wide array of counseling and support services lead to across-the-board improvements in academics, attendance and campus climate and a narrowing of the racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates, she said.

“My goal is to keep every kid in school every day,” she said. “Because the more we can keep kids in school, the greater chance they’ll go to college, do better in the workplace and ultimately be more successful in life. It’s about improving the health of the entire community.”

Visalia Unified, in Tulare County, has also adopted a comprehensive program for in-school suspensions. Like Hemet, Visalia still suspends students out-of-school for willful defiance, but most students are referred to in-school suspension, where they receive academic support, counseling and social services intended to “get to the root cause, find out what’s really going on, dig deeper into the issues that caused the problem to begin with,” said interim superintendent Tamara Ravalin.

Visalia Unified, with nearly 28,900 students, has seen its defiance suspensions fall about 26 percentage points in recent years, from 233 students in 2015-16 to 173 in 2017-18, the most recent year data is available.

Under the new protocol, students are taught better ways to handle anger and frustration, how to walk away from potential conflicts and other coping tools.

“It’s a chance for students to grow and learn from their behavior, as well as a chance for us to see what’s going on with kids,” she said. “One of the main things is we want our students coming to school. We’re sending a strong message that we want students to stay in school and be successful. Sending kids home is not solving the issue.”

In-school suspension programs vary in state

But across the state, programs vary widely. Many high schools still send students home for willful defiance, but others have either reduced their numbers significantly over the past few years or eliminated the practice entirely, according to statewide data. Some schools have in-school suspension programs, but they consist of students sitting in a classroom doing homework, without counseling, tutoring or behavior help.

Modesto City Schools offers academic and behavioral support at an on-campus “intervention center” for students facing in-school suspensions, said district spokeswoman Becky Fortuna.

“The goal is for students to learn how to improve their behavior and return to the classroom with the skills necessary to follow school rules and participate in their academic program,” she said.

Jenny Escobar, restorative justice coach at the California Conference for Equality and Justice, a nonprofit that runs conflict resolution programs in schools, said in-school suspensions with counseling and other services can be helpful. But to really reduce behavior problems on campus, schools need to take a broader approach to student well-being by addressing students’ social-emotional needs before behavior problems arise. Students shouldn’t just have access to counseling when they’re being disruptive in class, she said.

“It’s nice to see schools interested in this, but it has to be ongoing. And it has to be not just for the kids who are causing trouble, but for everyone,” she said. “Schools have to really commit to it. Teachers, too.”

She advises schools to institute meetings between teachers or counselors and small groups of students every other week to talk about problems the students may be facing, issues on campus or other topics. The meetings can also focus on academics, celebrations, student interests — anything to build trusting relationships between students and adults at school, she said.

Losen, at UCLA, agreed. In a perfect world, he said, in-school suspensions would be minimal because student behavior issues would be addressed before they reach the suspension level.

“My feeling is, districts don’t always do enough on the front end,” he said. “There’s a lack of training for teachers as well as principals. Too often teachers are left on their own.”

The ramifications are great and can end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars over the long term, he said. Students who miss a lot of class — due to discipline measures or other reasons — are more likely to drop out, which later on leads to lower incomes, greater reliance on social services and more physical health problems.

“People say there’ll be chaos if we don’t take disruptive kids out of school. Well, we’ll have worse chaos if we do,” he said. “I think we owe it to our kids to provide the supports they need.”

Story originally published by EdSource.

Carolyn Jones