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Is California Doing Enough to Close the School Discipline Gap?

Authors: Daniel J. Losen and Paul Martinez
Date Published: June 21, 2020

This research provides a unique seven-year trend analysis indicating that, while California has seen a decline in the use of suspensions in schools prior to the pandemic, the pace of the decline has slowed and large racial disparities in suspension rates remain. The research supports renewed advocacy efforts to eliminate schools’ use of security officers to enforce school rules, finding that high schools with higher security staff-to-student ratios tend to also have higher rates of lost instruction due to suspensions, especially for Black students.
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Excerpt from the Executive Summary

In California, a combination of statewide and local efforts has been implemented to reduce the use of punitive suspensions in public K-12 schools. Current state data trends reflect these efforts, showing that far fewer students were suspended during the 2018-19 school year than in 2011-12. However, the data trends also show that the decline in the use of suspensions has slowed at the state level in the last few years and that large racial disparities remain, although they have narrowed.


Both the current data and the trends are described in terms of the estimated disparate impact on instruction time lost due to suspensions, with a focus on the impact experienced by students of color and students with disabilities. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus and the sudden closing of schools across the state, awareness of the immediate negative impact of missing school, even when not meant as a punishment, is being experienced by all children and their parents. Some estimate that the missed instruction will be devastating, especially for students with disabilities, many of whom are cut off from the special education and support services they need to make sufficient progress. The students with the greatest needs will be predictably struggling with whatever distance learning opportunities they have been provided, if any.


When California’s schools do re-open, in addition to falling behind academically, many students with disabilities and others who received counseling and other mental health support supports while at school will have received little or no support for many months. Moreover, many who were struggling because of experiencing trauma in their home may have suffered new trauma.


When students finally do return to school, it will be imperative that educators are prepared to deal constructively with the impact the long absence will have had on students’ academic needs, and on their emotional health. Now more than ever, schools will have to seriously rethink using the denial of even more instruction as a punitive response to minor misbehaviors. This is especially important for students of color, homeless children, and those from low-income households, all of whom are currently being disproportionately harmed by the virus, due to inequalities in access to the technology needed for distance learning, as well as health care, housing, and employment.


Out of concern for the disparate harm caused by unnecessary suspensions, this report breaks down the data by offense categories: disruption/defiance, violence with injury, drug-related, etc. The analysis highlights the educational opportunity costs of using suspension to respond to breaking school rules and the need to pursue alternative responses that are equally or more effective at correcting a misbehavior and preventing its reoccurrence.


The good news is that this report’s analysis of the trend data show that the sharp decline in suspensions for disruption/defiance were not offset by increases in other categories, including more serious offenses. We found no evidence of chaos in the schools when we examined trends at the state level or among districts that reduced suspensions the most. However, the district-level analysis shows that several large districts have increased their suspension rates, thus bucking the statewide trend. Moreover, in 2018-19, despite the statewide reduction in suspensions for disruption/defiance, many of the districts with the largest racial gaps are still suspending students for this minor misconduct category at very high rates. Further, an extraordinarily high amount of lost instruction due to suspension was revealed in schools run by County Offices of Education (COEs), which tended to have much higher than average rates of lost instruction for disruption/defiance. Policymakers should care about these rates and trends because research has shown that disciplinary exclusion contributes substantially to inequities, not only in test scores and graduation rates but in life outcomes, including deep economic consequences.


In response to the pandemic, school districts have been given five additional months to submit the academic and spending priorities contained in their local control accountability plans (LCAPs) for fiscal year 2020-21. Given the huge amount of lost instruction due to the school closings needed to limit exposure to the coronavirus, it would be shortsighted if districts did not revisit their expenditures on school climate and consider adding measures to support students and teachers.  


This report contains new research that is relevant to those resource decisions. Prompted by concerns about inadequate supports for students and an increasing reliance on security officers, this report provides the first ever analysis of the relationship between days of lost instruction and staff-to-student ratios for California high schools in the 2015-16 academic year. The analysis was not designed to show causation, but it does show that there is a positive relationship between the rate of lost instruction due to suspension and the security staff-to-student ratio, and that the relationship was strongest for Black students. These findings raise questions about allocating scarce education resources for security staff, and they come amid rising awareness that some districts have been spending state funds earmarked for improving outcomes for high-needs students on hiring school security staff.


More broadly, without improvement in the quality and quantity of special education, counseling, school health and other support services, our public schools will continue to struggle to ensure equity in educational opportunity. As important as it is to make changes to the code of conduct that will help eliminate unnecessary and disparate loss of instruction due to discipline, in order to have a deeper impact it will be necessary to combine formal limits on the use of suspension with increased resources and other improvements to policy and practice that are designed to foster a healthier school climate. Given the disparate impact the pandemic has had on families of color and students with disabilities, when school finally resumes, it will be more important than ever before to ensure that educators get the supports they need to end unjustified suspensions that punish the children (and their families) who have the greatest needs with even more school exclusion.


The report is divided into three parts:

Part I: State-Level Trends and Disparities

Part II: District-Level Trends and Disparities in Lost Instruction

Part III: Staffing Needs, School Security, and Days of Lost Instruction Due to Discipline



This study is also available on eScholarship at:

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