Features & Columns

The New Civil Rights Issue: School Suspensions

Movement to end school suspensions a civil rights fight
BACK TO SCHOOL: Charles Fowler, a teacher at Yerba Buena High School in San Jose, is one of a growing number of local instructors who have chosen to avoid suspending students. Photograph by Jennifer Wadsworth

First day of class after winter break and the quiet one walks in late. He missed the first six weeks the prior semester, but improved the most once he showed up. In just a few months, Fs became Bs and As. He's bright, he just needs to try. But today his eyes look glazed and red. He reeks. Classmates in Room 302 know he's high. He must be. Look at his eyes—they're bloodshot. And that smell. Mr. Fowler pulls the quiet one outside. He won't let him get away with it.

"Welcome back," Mr. Fowler says. "How was your Christmas?"

"Fine. I didn't do anything."

"OK. Did you get high today?"


"Well you came late. You smell funny. You're not yourself. What's going on?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

The quiet one hangs his head, silent and defiant. Mr. Fowler knows the rules: He calls school security; they check for drugs; and the student is sent to the principal. School policy says walking in late and signs of intoxication merit suspension.

But Mr. Fowler remembers his days in high school. He wasn't a model student either. He showed up late and skipped class. He got into fights. He took his anger out on others—a reaction to the abuse at home. Teachers didn't know how to handle Mr. Fowler, back when he was just Charles. At least the quiet one made it to class, he thought. Maybe the quiet one just needs a second chance.

"Write about your Christmas break," Mr. Fowler says. "Why wasn't it fun?"

The quiet one hunches his shoulders and keeps his head down. He writes and writes about running away. He spent his holiday break on the frigid streets, too afraid to go home—even to shower. He was angry and scared. Something terrible happened. Now Mr. Fowler knew he could do something to help.

School, Interrupted

In his two years teaching at San Jose's Yerba Buena High School, Charles Fowler has never suspended a student. The policy is more personal than political, a standard he set for his own classroom-sized sphere of influence. But it's part of a larger trend among educators to change the whole culture of school discipline by removing suspension—especially off-campus suspension—as a penalty for subjective reasons like "willful defiance," which can include anything from smoking a cigarette on campus to mouthing off to challenging dress code. Hundreds of Yerba Buena students broke the school's dress code Monday to protest the policy, which they say unfairly targets some students, especially the poor. Staff swept the 1,700-student Eastside campus, pulling students from class and corralling more than 200 in the library for a lecture from the principal about how breaking the rules isn't the way to get a point across. But no one got suspended, administrators say. "We see an incident like this as a teachable moment," Principal Tom Huynh says.

During his first year teaching, Fowler heard at a staff meeting that the school reported 80 disciplinary referrals that semester for students showing up to class without a pencil, thus "unprepared." So he bought a bunch of pencils and started handing them out to students. "There's one less reason to send kids away," he says.

In 2010-11, more than half of the 20,000 suspensions in Santa Clara County schools were discretionary—the statewide rate was 40 percent. To combat the problem, county school officials teamed up with the Public Defender and District Attorney to come up with alternative ways to discipline students and stop what they call the "school-to-prison pipeline."

The NAACP calls suspensions a civil rights problem, given that they disproportionately target minorities, the disabled and the poor. Suspended kids are three times as likely to wind up in juvenile court. A bill making its way through the state Assembly—AB 420—aims to eliminate "willful defiance" as a cause for suspension.

"The thing that strikes me about suspensions, especially when you're talking about willful defiance, is that students learn a behavior that can remove them from class," says Yvette Irving, head of alternative education for the county. "They get sent home, they end up sitting in front of the Nintendo, or worse, involved with gangs."

Several local schools have made an effort to cut back on the number of suspensions. Five years ago, Yerba Buena had 1,062 suspensions. Last year, the number dropped to just 23. The school has improved attendance and retains more daily per-pupil funding from the state. Huynh says the policy has improved standardized test scores, though they still fall short of state-set benchmarks, from 633 in 2007 to 682 last year on the Academic Performance Index. The biggest upside, Huynh says, is that student behavior has improved.

A handful of other South Bay campuses have adopted alternative disciplinary policies, some focused on what's called restorative justice, which forces students to confront their mistakes by hashing things out with the victim or a teacher.

"They're forced to face the problem instead of being sent away," Irving says. "It's more of a natural, real-world consequence, to make you think about coming together and getting things fixed instead of teaching a student they can run away and not deal with it."

Get Out

Cristina Uribe, 15, didn't even get a chance to get settled before a teacher banished her to the principal's office last year for showing up without a pencil.

"She goes, 'You're never prepared for class,'" Cristina recounts. "She raised her voice at me, she said, basically, 'Leave. Get out of my class.'"

That was last year. Since, Cristina's become something of an on-campus activist, writing a student bill-of-rights. "We have the right to be respected by students, teachers and administrators," reads number 11 in a list of 12. "We have the right to establish an independent teacher oversight committee."

Board of Education trustee Darcie Green says suspensions have given teachers leverage over unruly students, but the policy can morph into a power play, putting thousands of students at a disadvantage in favor of a quick fix. "Ideally, I'd like to see schools come up with alternatives to suspensions," Green says. "Any time students aren't in the classroom, it hurts education."

Dana Bunnett, head of advocacy group Kids in Common, says suspensions can "pass the buck." But things can get more complicated when dealing with drugs or fights. Marijuana-related suspensions have shot up more than 200 percent at East San Jose schools, the county says. And fights can escalate to a public safety issue. "Now we have to ask ourselves, how do we deal with this growing problem, that more kids are getting caught with drugs?" Bunnett says. "The answer might be to provide more social services type support, rather than calling law enforcement right away. I don't know. That's a conversation we need to have."

San Jose-based student advocacy group Californians for Justice says such penalties lead to the criminalization of youth. On the East Side, 1,300 kids were arrested in 2012 and many of them had suspensions on record, the group claims.

"I get the chance to suspend someone at least once a week—easy," Fowler says. "But I take it as a challenge unto myself to think about how I can address the issue without dismissing anyone."

It's an approach more educators are taking, and one Fowler wishes teachers had tried with him in high school.

"My own healing process became connected to this redemption," he says. "All the mistakes that authority figures made toward me make me want to do right by my own students."