California Has Become A Nationwide Leader In Better School Discipline Practices

Listen up, states.
Justin Lewis via Getty Images

California is leading the way in making sure that young kids don't get pushed out of school for minor misbehavior.

A new study out Monday from UCLA's Civil Rights Project shows that districts in the Golden State sharply reduced the number of suspensions given to kids between 2011 and 2014. At the same time that suspension rates went down in many areas, academic achievement improved -- suggesting that the move away from harsh discipline practices benefitted schools.

The study comes at a time when schools are facing increased scrutiny for perpetuating the so-called school-to-prison pipeline by employing tactics that push students out of school and make them more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. The school-to-prison pipeline especially impacts youth of color, who typically face higher suspension and expulsion rates.

The UCLA study -- which analyzes district and state-level data -- found that suspension rates declined as districts became less likely to punish students for "disruption or willful defiance," a category used to describe more minor, nonviolent offenses. In 2014, a California law banned school suspensions based on disruption or willful defiance for students in kindergarten through third grade, although data used in this study came before the ban.

Overall, the number of suspensions dropped from 709,580 in the 2011-2012 school year to 503,101 in 2013-2014. The biggest drop in suspensions came for black students, although they are still significantly more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts. In 2011-2012, there were 33 suspensions for every 100 black students, but by 2013-2014, this number dropped to 25.6 suspensions per 100 students.

“"We’re on the cusp of more meaningful change."”

- Daniel Losen

"There's been a general movement across the nation [to reduce suspensions] and California has been among the leaders," said Daniel Losen, author of the study and director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies.

When districts reduced suspension rates, black students also saw the largest academic gains, according to UCLA researchers. Researchers found that lower suspension rates were related to higher scores on the California Academic Performance Index, but did not claim causation. Still, "we do know from other research that efforts to improve achievement could be consistent with efforts to reduce suspensions," the study notes.

The data "pushes back on the assumption that if you lower suspension rates bad things are going to happen," Losen said. "Where you tend to find higher-than-average achievement, you also find lower-than-average suspension rates -- especially for black kids."

The data reflects the efforts of major districts like Los Angeles, which barred the use of suspensions in response to willful defiance before the statewide ban went into effect. However, recent reports out of Los Angeles paint a more negative picture of these policies. Some teachers say that they have not been provided with enough training or resources to deal with conflict or misbehavior in lieu of suspensions, and that classrooms have become more unruly as a result.

Losen agrees that while teachers need to be provided with adequate support and resources to keep their classrooms safe, that doesn't mean districts should slow progress in reducing suspensions.

"My take is: We agree teachers need support but it shouldn’t be either/or," said Losen. "Right now, when you suspend a student, especially out of school for a minor offense, there is no research to support that. That’s just bad practice. It's not educationally sound. That needs to stop."

He continued: "We shouldn’t say, 'Oh, let's put up with something harmful to kids until teachers are trained.'"

The report recommends that districts provide supports to increase student engagement and that state and district policymakers consider eliminating suspensions for minor offenses for all grades.

"We’re on the cusp of more meaningful change if we continue to pursue things," Losen said.


Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation, and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email


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