While Kern High School District has made strides in driving down suspension and expulsion rates, more students say they are skipping days of school because they feel unsafe on campus, according to data released by the district during a community forum hosted at West High School Thursday.
Overall, 10 percent of the district’s students surveyed said this year they skipped school at least once in the last 60 days because they felt unsafe at school or on their way home from school. It represents a three percent increase from the 2016-2017 school year.
That data comes months after Bakersfield High School teachers complained to board members in public meetings that fights had become a common occurrence on campus, something they attributed to a restructuring of disciplinary policies following a settlement the district entered into with California Rural Legal Assistance.
“Before, we were probably expelling kids too quick and removing them too quick and maybe for too long,” KHSD Board Trustee Mike Williams told The Bakersfield Californian in April. “Now we’ve swung the pendulum back so far that we’ve got kids who shouldn’t be here.”
But CRLA attorney Rebecca Buckley-Stein said there’s no way to qualify why students answered the way they did in the climate survey.
Instead, she focused on the disparities among races. Students across all ethnicities reported feeling unsafe at school within a 60-day period, however the highest increase over the 2016-2017 school year came from Hispanic and white students. Both had six percent increases over last year.
A higher percentage of African American students also reported that there’s a lot of tension between “cultures, races and ethnicities” at local campuses. Roughly 30 percent of all African American students surveyed say there’s tension, compared to 19 percent among Hispanic students and 22 percent among white students.
“There is something going on and it seems linked to race,” Buckley-Stein said.
Regardless, district officials said they need to improve school climate to make kids feel safer, but touted progress decreasing suspensions and expulsions during the forum.
“We want to celebrate the staff for some of the work they’re doing with students, but we want to look at some issues that are trending in the wrong direction as well over the long haul,” said Brian Mendiburu, director of student behavior and supports for KHSD.
The forum was legally mandated as part of the terms of a $670,000 settlement agreement the district entered into in 2017 after more than 20 plaintiffs accused KHSD of disproportionately suspending and expelling Latino and African American students.
The district has come a long way in driving down the rate of suspensions and expulsions since beginning to implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a systems approach that stresses restorative justice over harsh disciplinary actions, district leaders said.
At the forum, KHSD leaders delved into data relating to expulsions, suspensions, involuntary and voluntary transfers and school climate.
The data shows the number of suspensions have dropped slightly from 9.6 percent in the 2016-17 school year to a projected 8.8 percent in 2017-18. African American students, however, continue to make up the majority of students suspensions at a projected 18.9 percent in 2017-18 — a significant drop from the 23.1 percent in 2015-16.
The number of students expelled increased from 26 in 2016-17 to a projected 29 in 2017-18. Hispanics continue to be expelled at a higher rate than others, with a total of 14 students expelled in 2017-18.
The total number of students suspended and expelled in the 2017-2018 school year will be published in the fall.
Involuntary transfer decreased from 102 in 2016-17 to 61 in 2017-18.
Faculty members said these results are expected this early in the process, and they anticipate seeing continual growth. John Eyler, the founder and CEO of Collaborative Learning Solutions said the approach takes about five to seven years to fully implement.
RELATED: Q&A: CRLA attorney Rebecca Buckley-Stein discusses school climate