High school students celebrate the Los Angeles Unified School District's… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
The limits on student suspensions approved by the Los Angeles Unified school board this week may burnish the district's progressive credentials, putting L.A. in the forefront of a national shift away from zero-tolerance policies that ban kids from campus for minor offenses.
But the measure, which forbids suspensions for "willful defiance," has also shown how complicated and emotional the issue of student discipline can be. The two school board members who voted against it have markedly different perspectives that rarely make them allies.
The ban was prompted by national research that suggests suspension is a tool capriciously used and that it unfairly penalizes black children, who tend to be punished more severely and for less serious offenses than other students.
In Los Angeles Unified, blacks account for 26% of the district's suspensions, but only 9% of its students. That imbalance troubles Supt. John Deasy. He championed the measure, backed by community groups who consider suspension a "push out" practice that creates a "school-to-prison pipeline" for black and Latino students.
Yet the school board's only African American member, Marguerite LaMotte, voted against the ban, and lectured the students who crowded the board room to support it.
"I'm going to vote 'no' because it will give you the wrong message," she told them. "I'm not going to give you permission to go out and act crazy and think there are no consequences for your behavior."
LaMotte represents the region with the most black students in the district. She sees toleration of bad behavior as a disincentive for good behavior, a soft-bigotry-of-low-expectations deal.
"We love you," LaMotte told the students. "But there's a path you have to walk."
Board member Tamar Galatzan represents a suburban chunk of the San Fernando Valley with the most white students in the district. She didn't need to give a speech; her hard-edged 'no' made her feelings clear.
"It frustrates me," Galatzan told me later, "to hear all the protesters talk about the rights of the students who are causing problems in class, and there's nobody that's talking about the rights of the other 35 students who are trying to get an education."
I've heard grumbling like that from parents and teachers, who imagine good kids held hostage by troublemakers, out of discipline's reach.
The problem is that the troublemaker and the kid who wants to learn just might be the same student. And tough love feels like no love if we bounce them out of school.
"Willful defiance" is a very broad label that can cover anything from wearing baggy pants to fighting to mouthing off in class. The category accounts for almost half of California's 700,000 yearly suspensions, and more than one-third of those in LAUSD.
Critics say it gives school officials too much discretion and too little incentive to work with struggling children.
"Teenagers misbehave. They make mistakes, bad choices, a lot," said Jose Huerta, principal at Garfield High. "We react to that. The kid disrespects a teacher, says the F-word in class and you don't know what to do. So you kick him out until you figure it out.
"And you miss a chance to help a kid who may be crying out for help,"
The ban is part of a broader push to move away from suspensions as a disciplinary tool. Research shows they do more harm than good, depressing achievement and alienating students who don't see incentives to improve.
The resolution is loaded with timelines and noble concepts like "restorative justice," but short on guidance for a teacher wondering what exactly she's supposed to do when Johnny curses her out in class.
School board President Monica Garcia doesn't see that as a drawback. Schools need to find ways to engage students who feel angry, disrespected, unloved.
"I'm expecting that an educated adult ...can create [disciplinary] alternatives that don't say to a student 'You don't deserve to be in school.'"
Garfield High has done just that. Suspensions at the East Los Angeles campus dropped from 638 in 2009 to only one this year and last.
But that took more than a rule change. As a new principal, Huerta hand-picked "passionate" teachers and enlisted scores of parent volunteers. He revamped the schedule to offer longer classes and more help for failing pupils. He devised a new discipline code aimed at building mutual respect between teachers and students, rather than arming teachers for a power struggle.
The payoff has been better attendance, rising test scores and a record number of graduates accepted by UCLA this year. "You won't see fights here, you won't see graffiti," he said. "The kids feel like this is their second home."
That doesn't mean students don't get punished. There are conferences with parents, conflict resolution lessons and lunches spent away from friends, being tutored in the "intervention room."