The state of California just received some encouraging news. New data from the California Department of Education shows that school suspensions are down again across the state, with willful defiance suspensions accounting for the greatest reductions. In fact, suspension rates dropped further last year than the year before. In total, we’ve seen a 25% drop in suspensions during the past two years.
This would never have been possible without the outstanding efforts of youth, parents, community leaders, and advocates who first highlighted the overuse of suspensions and fought with such relentless courage for positive school discipline reforms at the local and state level. Their work has made a real difference in California and set an example for the entire nation. They deserve our thanks and admiration.
But while we have achieved a great deal together on school discipline reform, we still have much work to do. Suspensions are down for Latino and African-American students, yet disparities have not changed. African-American students, for instance, make up 6% of the student population but 16% of suspensions. As a former public school educator, that’s just unacceptable. More restorative justice, more social and emotional learning, more positive behavior supports, and more healing-focused school practices need to be the norm.
The good thing is a growing number of teachers and school leaders are using positive discipline strategies like these. And educators are developing a greater understanding of the impact of childhood trauma on behavior and performance in school. We know that when schools are successful at reducing suspensions through strategies like restorative justice and positive behavior supports, they also experience gains in academic achievement, attendance, school climate, and safety.
The Oakland Unified School District is one example. OUSD also released compelling data this week showing that restorative justice is working in Oakland schools — and having positive impacts beyond reduced suspensions. A new report found that as suspensions dropped, overall reading levels went up! High schools that implemented restorative justice saw 9th grade reading levels increase by 128% compared to only 11% for non-restorative justice schools. Restorative justice high schools also experienced a 56% decline in dropout rates compared to 17% in non-RJ high schools. And almost 70% of school staff reported that restorative justice practices are helping improve school climate.
Investments are paying off in Oakland and in other places in the state. The data proves it. Now is the time for all of California to double down on our investment in the positive approach.
During this month when we honor Martin Luther King Jr., we should remember that education is a constitutional right in California. And kids are mandated to go to school. It doesn’t make sense to kick them out when they don’t comply or behave, and worse, it doesn’t work. This new data shows that there are better ways. It’s our obligation to use them.