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L.A. School Discipline Reforms Praised By Latino Educators, Experts

Image: Myeisha Phillips

Damian Dovarganes / ASSOCIATED PRESS

On Tuesday afternoon the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is announcing a major reform in school discipline procedures. The changes, which will go into effect this school year, mean that the LAUSD will no longer issue citations for most campus fights and other minor infractions. Instead, students will be referred to counseling, mental health services, or other school-based solutions.

LAUSD serves roughly 650,000 K-12 students, 73 percent of whom are Latino.

LAUSD is shifting away from suspensions, arrests, and citations – and toward a more progressive system known as restorative justice. Under restorative justice reforms, school districts try to work with troubled students, rather than removing them from campus. Already, school districts from San Francisco, California to Broward County, Florida have embraced such reforms.

"LAUSD is the second largest school district in the country. The fact that it made this commitment to make this change really should be a strong statement to every other district, including those that may continue to follow very heavy suspension expulsion practices," said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Evidence shows that behavioral intervention practices other than expulsion and suspension are equally or more effective in helping children be successful in school, Saenz said Tuesday. He said there may be some small number of children who benefit from suspension or being placed in other settings, but in most cases schools have been overusing the severe discipline of expelling or suspending kids from school.

One key reason behind the movement to change school policing procedures is because of demonstrated racial disparities in student outcomes. According to the Labor/Community Strategy Center, in the 2012-2013 school year, Latino students in LAUSD were more than twice as likely as white students to be ticketed. Black students were almost 6 times as likely as a white student to be ticketed. The Associated Press reports that of the roughly 9,000 arrests and citations issued in 2011-212, 93 percent involved Black and Latino students.

“One juvenile arrest doubles your chance of not finishing school,” said a children's rights attorney.

“The LAUSD absolutely deserves a lot of credit for making these reforms,” said Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. “Up to fairly recently, we have seen a steady criminalization of school districts. But we need to take the police out, or at least reduce their role, and focus on other ways to reach our problem kids.”

Noguera noted that these reforms don’t mean that school will become less secure. “A certain police presence may always be needed, especially in areas with high crime rates. And we are not going to tolerate disruptive behavior; kids have to be safe in order to learn. But we don’t want kids arrested and given a criminal record for minor offenses,” Noguera said.

He pointed out that in many districts, even a minor argument among students over a cell phone can result in an arrest. In some instances, teachers who tried to intervene in a dispute between students have been arrested as well.

Noguera said the Obama administration deserves credit for promoting more reasonable, rational school discipline policies. In January, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said secondary schools have suspended or expelled an estimated two million students a year, and these punishments are being disproportionately applied to children of color and students with disabilities.

“The LAUSD is taking an important step, and becoming part of a national trend,” said Ruth Cusick, Children’s Rights Attorney with Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm. Public Counsel, together with the Community Rights Campaign, worked to bring about the changes in LAUSD policies. She notes that getting young people involved with the criminal justice system at school can have unintended consequences. “One juvenile arrest doubles your chance of not finishing school.”

“This announcement by the LAUSD is an important marker,” said Manuel Criollo, Director of Organizing for the Community Rights Campaign. ”We have seen how children of color have been put into the school-to-prison pipeline. Now we are seeing momentum in the other direction. We are a new civil rights movement – and we are going to change the cultures in our schools for the better.”

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