By Kevin McNeill
In 2014, various civil rights organizations and individual students sued the Kern High School District (KHSD), the Kern County Department of Education (KCDOE) and the California Department of Education (CDE) in response to the disproportionate suspension of Black and Latino students.
While some of the litigation is still ongoing, a settlement was reached with the KHSD in 2017 and with the KCDOE in 2019. Among other items, the KHSD agreed to re-evaluate their policies on exclusionary discipline, and to introduce approaches to student discipline other than suspension and expulsion. Although the inequality in the rates of suspension of Black and Latino students has improved slightly, it is far from equal, and much more improvement is needed.
During the 2016-17 school year, the year before the settlement, KHSD administered just under 5,800 suspensions. Of these, 23 percent were for “defiance” – a catch-all term that can mean anything from being out-of-bounds to disrupting a classroom to not immediately obeying staff instruction. While definitions may vary, one thing is certain – a “defiant” student is not behaving in a violent manner, nor do they constitute a threat to the safety of staff or that of other students.
Numbers released by the KHSD after the settlement report a decrease in the use of suspensions to address defiance, as well as a decrease in the use of suspension and expulsion overall. The impression given is that the KHSD has taken steps to ensure that student discipline, when deemed necessary, is meted out more equitably. But a closer examination reveals this is not the case.
Although overall numbers have decreased, disproportionality remains, and students of color are still being suspended at alarming rates. For example, information available from DataQuest (as well as the KHSD) reveals that during the 2018-19 academic year (the second year following the settlement), suspension rates for African American, Latino, and White students all actually increased. Further, African Americans as a group continue to be about three times more likely to be disciplined than other ethnicities.
Other groups are being suspended at even higher rates. During this same year, about one in four (25 percent) migrant students and nearly one in three (31.6 percent) foster youth were suspended. These figures, available from EdData, both represent increases over the previous academic year and also coincide with decreases in graduation rates for each group. This same pattern applied to students with disabilities, although to a lesser extent.
Let’s be clear – removing a student from school is an extreme action. Leading scholars in education have determined that the negative consequences of suspending a student – irrespective of any actions associated with it – are just as severe. Still, experts maintain that discipline of this severity does have a place – possession of weapons and illegal drugs, or violent attacks against staff and other students, for example. But in the KHSD these actions are cited as the reason for discipline in only a small number of cases.
The competency and maturity of students is another issue worth considering. Courts have ruled – with a few exceptions – that a person under the age of 18 years is not competent to make decisions on their own behalf. However, the nature of discipline in schools is based on the premise of competency – the punishment received is a consequence of the student’s behavior. Unless the student is competent, the punishment is not justified.
Article IX of the California Constitution guarantees every student’s right to an education. Generally, society has set aside the periods of childhood and adolescence for youth to learn – that’s their “job.” Schools operate to facilitate this learning. Removing a student – regardless of the reason – denies them of this right, and is detrimental to their education. It also raises concerns about the school’s ability (or willingness) to educate the remaining students.
That being said, the community also has a responsibility in the education of our youth. As part of their legal settlement, the KHSD will be hosting a community forum at 7 p.m. on January 30 at West High School, 1200 New Stine Road.
At that time, district representatives are scheduled to provide information on current approaches to school discipline, as well as how strategies have been designed to reduce disproportionality among groups. This event is an ideal opportunity for members of the community to ask questions, and also learn what they can do to continue holding the KHSD accountable.
Kevin McNeill is a connected community member and a South High graduate from the class of 1979.