06/06/2013 03:23 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

The Epidemic That's Threatening Our Future. And How Los Angeles Unified School District Is Determined to Reverse It.

Co-authored by Steven Zimmer and Mónica García, Los Angeles Unified School District Board and Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO, The California Endowment

The first time Damien Valentine was suspended he was in seventh grade. A teacher asked him to change seats for talking. When he asked why, Damien was sent to the Principal's office for being "willfully defiant" and talking back. He was suspended for the day. Upon returning to class, Damien felt scared to participate for fear of being suspended again; his academics and education suffered.

Damien's story is an example of harsh discipline practiced in schools across the state and country.

Rather than let his negative experience get him off track, Damien got involved. On May 14, Damien was at Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters in Downtown LA along with 300 other young people. They testified and showed support while the School Board approved a ground-breaking School Climate Bill of Rights, putting common sense discipline at the heart of the second largest school district in the country.

By a vote of 5 to 2, the Board approved the resolution that directs LAUSD to end the use of "willful defiance" as a reason for suspensions and expand discipline programs that hold students accountable while keeping them in school and on a path to success. Willful defiance is a subjective, catch-all category for low-level behavior disruptions that used to warrant a trip to the principal's office.

In California, fully 58 percent of all disciplinary actions were for that category, not for the serious offenses you might imagine. Almost every state has an equivalent category.

In recent years the state of California has suspended more students than it graduates - nearly 400,000 students are suspended annually. This is an American problem. Across the country, over two million students were suspended in the 2009-2010 academic year, which means 1 out of 9 secondary students were suspended at least once.

And it's not for what you think: a very small percentage of suspensions are for weapons or drugs. The vast majority are for low-level disruptive behavior, like not listening in class or violating a school's dress code. Students need to be held accountable for their conduct. But schools should handle problems like these in school. Pushing students away, so they fall further behind in their schoolwork and lose contact with trusted teachers, is almost never the best solution.

Further, suspensions aren't applied fairly. The U.S. Department of Education found young men of color are suspended at disproportionately high rates. African Americans comprise 18% of students, but received 34% of suspensions and 39% of expulsions. However, when suspensions are for clearly defined, non-discretionary reasons, rates of suspension are equal.

A suspension is a high stakes moment. Research shows that students with suspensions drop out at five times the rate of students without suspensions which increases their lifelong risk for unemployment and chronic disease. This is an epidemic we can't afford.

And it doesn't work.

Studies from pediatricians, psychologists and other experts show that high suspension rates do not lead to safe classrooms or improved academic achievement. To the contrary, principals and teachers tell us that when they stop suspending for low-level disruptions, and instead use positive discipline strategies that hold students accountable while keeping them in school, campuses immediately become calmer and test scores go up.

Recognizing these realities, LAUSD began to reform its approach to discipline. In 2007, the district adopted a positive behavioral supports policy. In 2011, Superintendent John Deasy made reducing suspensions part of his own performance review. Last year, the district issued new rules to reduce truancy tickets and worked instead to help students get to and remain in school.

These changes are already making a major difference. The district cut suspensions nearly in half since they initiated common sense reforms and has also seen higher attendance and improved test scores. The new policy will spread proven alternatives to suspension including restorative practices more broadly throughout the district.

How did this happen? Through active involvement of students and parents and the willingness of the Superintendent and Board to share the mission of educating our kids. This partnership must continue as the rubber hits the road and we work to make these changes real in every Los Angeles school.

At the forefront of these reform efforts are young people like Damien whose leadership helped Los Angeles Unified School District do the right thing for kids. We dare say every district in the country should follow suit.