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Merced schools use new practices to cut suspensions

Andre Griggs, left, coordinator of the Le Grand Restorative Justice League, speaks to students during a meeting at Le Grand High School in August. The program trains students to offer support to peers who may be facing challenges at school, home or in the streets.
Andre Griggs, left, coordinator of the Le Grand Restorative Justice League, speaks to students during a meeting at Le Grand High School in August. The program trains students to offer support to peers who may be facing challenges at school, home or in the streets. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

Merced County students who find themselves in trouble for bad behavior are more likely to be sent to a counselor or enter a mediation process than be suspended from classes as school districts across California reform discipline and behavior procedures to help keep more young people in school.

A bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 bars schools from suspending or expelling students for defiance, and Merced County schools are falling in line with a statewide trend of reduced suspensions, according to data from the California Department of Education and a report released last month. The report noted that, in particular, suspensions have fallen dramatically for African American and Latino students, and that the decline in suspensions strongly correlates with an increase in academic achievement.

Merced schools have begun implementing discipline practices that, research indicates, better empower students and staff members, and promote a climate that nurtures learning.

“If we are serious about closing the achievement gap, we need to make serious efforts to close the discipline gap,” said Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies and lead author of the study. “Most important, the study suggests that, as discipline reform expands, there is no reason to assume achievement will suffer.”

In Merced County, data from the California Department of Education show that school districts have had mixed results in lowering suspension rates. Some, such as the Le Grand Union High School District, have cut suspension rates in half and have nearly avoided expulsions altogether. Suspension rates in other districts, such as the Merced City School District, have fluctuated as schools work to implement new behavior frameworks. In contrast, schools in Dos Palos showed a consistently high suspension rate from 2011-12 to 2013-14. The district of about 2,300 students also stood out as having one of the state’s highest suspension rates for black students.

The Merced Sun-Star made repeated phone calls and sent emails to Norma Delgado, the district’s director of curriculum, seeking comment about the high suspension rates, but received no response.

The Merced Union High School District and Le Grand use the Restorative Justice program, which establishes a student panel and mediation process for “victims” and “offenders.” Other districts, such as Merced City, are implementing the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program, which categorizes behaviors in tiers and uses instruction to teach good behavior and a variety of support methods to address disruptive behavior.

Signs of improvement

Some districts in Merced County have cut their suspension rates in half over the past few years after implementing these new behavior and discipline practices.

Le Grand Union High School had 80 total suspensions in 2010-11. That number was slashed to 43 the next school year and continued decreasing afterward. For two school years, Le Grand had no expulsions. The district – which consists of one primary high school and an alternative high school – is small, hovering around 500 students for the past five years.

2Number of suspensions in Le Grand this school year (2015-16)

The Merced Union High School District also has seen its suspension numbers steadily decrease. From the 2011-12 through the 2012-13 school years, the total number of suspensions was cut by more than 25 percent. Suspensions among black and Latino students reflect a similar decreasing pattern. The high school district has 10 schools and serves about 10,000 students.

The Merced City School District’s suspension numbers have fluctuated over the past few years. In 2011-12, there were 413 out-of-school suspensions for defiance. That number fell to 222 the next school year, and by 2013-14 rose again to 310. The district has 18 elementary and middle schools, serving about 10,700 students.

Brian Meisenheimer, the district’s director of pupil services, said the data are “very raw” and could fluctuate based on different reporting systems.

New practices

Community members and advocates for children said they believe schools are using the right approach in taking steps to reduce suspensions.

Rachelle Abril, founder of Distinguished Outreach Services, said she doesn’t believe suspensions and expulsions should be used by schools at all.

“It’s defeating the purpose of sending kids to school in suspending and expelling them,” she said. “Half the kids who get suspended and expelled don’t want to be in school. I’m definitely in favor of keeping kids in school.”

Meisenheimer acknowledged an overall change in mindset when dealing with behavior and discipline in schools.

“We have to change that mindset on how we are going to address discipline in schools and realize that suspensions and expulsions are not the best deterrents to bad behavior,” he said. “If we are really addressing instructionally those students who have behavior issues, we have to find ... the best way to reach them so they’re supported in class.”

We have to change that mindset on how we are going to address discipline in schools and realize that suspensions and expulsions are not the best deterrents to bad behavior.

Brian Meisenheimer, director of pupil services, Merced City School District

In order to do that, Merced City turned to the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program. Meisenheimer said the school district chose the PBIS framework because it helped define levels of behavior and individualize discipline for each school site. He described PBIS as a system that “creates a positive culture and environment where we instructionally teach students proper behaviors and expectation, and provide interventions for those who need additional support.”

Merced City has done a number of things to target disruptive behavior, Meisenheimer said, such as moving sixth grade back to elementary schools to give sixth-graders more time to mature, hiring more counselors, adding behavior specialists and switching to a new student database.

In the Le Grand Union and Merced Union high school districts, schools are using the Restorative Justice approach, a system that facilitates meetings between “victims” and “offenders.”

Le Grand has a student Restorative Justice League where a case is created for an offender and goes before a student panel that tries to find solutions before the case moves up to the principal.

“The students themselves help come up with different solutions to problems,” said Javier Martinez, the school principal. “That led to a culture change, and also the fact that students are in school learning. Automatically, it increased the academic performance of students.”

Merced Union High School District switched to a similar philosophy about three years ago. The district aims to create an instructional environment in which all students can engage and there’s no need to misbehave, said Tammie Calzadillas, an MUHSD administrator.

“There’s a lot of power when you bring a student in front of a teacher and the apology is real,” Calzadillas said. “When you restore that relationship, learning happens. That’s the magic.”

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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