03/30/2012 03:06 pm ET Updated May 30, 2012

Schools Must Pull Kids in, Not Turn Them Away

In the state of California alone, more than 700,000 school suspensions took place in the 2009-10 school year. A recent study that followed 7th graders through high school graduation in the state of Texas showed that nearly 60% of all students have been suspended from school at least once. The new federal data shows African-American and Latino students are suspended and expelled at rates nearly fourfold that of their white counterparts in some schools.

The explanation of the epidemic of school suspensions and expulsions across the nation is rooted in several theories, from the breakdown of the family to overwhelmed teachers in the classroom. Most experts agree that a catalytic event was the tragic 1999 Columbine High School shootings, where several students perished and policies with harsh and automatic punishments for violent behavior (and drug use) in school settings emerged across the nation. Many in our own generation will recall, that a few short decades ago, when you caused trouble in the classroom you were actually kept in school and after school -- in study hall, to talk to the principal with your parents, or to help the school custodian clean the school grounds. Post-Columbine, it appears that the default option has tilted towards out-of-school suspensions.

This has led to three major problems, and in particular, for low-income and urban communities. The first problem is the obvious one: from the standpoint of academic achievement, for each day that a young person is suspended from school, his or her educational attainment experiences a setback.

The other two problems are more subtle. Community leaders in South Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Fresno and Oakland insist that in their communities, often the safest and healthiest environment for children is to be in school, rather than out in the streets. Finally, many of these very same leaders, as well as civil rights groups, voice concern that a policy and environment of over-zealous "zero tolerance" practices in the school setting set the tone for a culture of stigma and failure in black and brown boys, as too many of them see prison and hopelessness as a more realistic future than a college degree.

It is logical to think that only serious misconduct leads to harsh discipline, but in California, the majority of suspensions and expulsions are not related to violence or drugs. In fact, about 40% of suspensions in 2009-10 were for defying the authority of school officials or disrupting school activities -- something known as "willful defiance" in the California Education Code. However, the term "willful defiance" is not defined, meaning that the interpretation is entirely up to school officials. The Texas study showed that the greatest racial disparities in school discipline occurred with offenses like willful defiance where the definition of that misconduct is in the eye of the beholder.

A policy and systems approach must take into account that our public schools, their administrators, and their teachers are part of the solution, and not blamed for the problem. In California, our teachers are too-often overstretched, under-resourced, and under-supported in dealing with difficult or troubled students. The answer likely lies in 1) shifting the "default option" from out-of-school towards in-school suspensions as a broader policy approach; 2) identifying and lifting up examples of schools and districts who have already begun to turn this problem around in California -- some have begun to utilize "restorative justice" approaches where the young person who causes a problem in the classroom accepts responsibility for his or her behavior, and "makes things right" with the teacher or fellow student; and, 3) establishing school-community partnerships to rally support for suspended students -- in mentoring, tutoring, counseling, or mental health evaluation and treatment. The California Teachers Association and The California Endowment are working in partnership to identify and support promising strategies, and share them with willing educators.