This post has been updated.

When Daniel Noriega was in the elementary school he cussed at teachers, he refused to do his work and he was sent home. Again and again.

Between the sixth and eighth grades, Noriega, who’s now a sophomore at E3 Civic High, was suspended about two dozen times by his count. One teacher told him he’d land in jail before he reached middle school. Another said they were wasting money keeping him in their school.

With the help of an afterschool program that prepares students for college, Noriega eventually shaped up. In fact, he said he’s now “doing it big” with a 4.0 grade point average and is working toward getting into a four-year university.

Looking back, Noriega chalks it up to a need to be noticed. His parents worked a lot, he said. When he got in trouble, his mom got mad. But he had her attention.

Noriega was lucky, but many students don’t try to change course until it’s too late.

This much is clear: Kids can’t learn if they’re not in class. And when it comes to disciplinary practices that keep kids out of San Diego Unified, black and Latino students are losing the most.

In the 2011-2012 school year, San Diego Unified doled out 12,932 total suspensions, according to the California Department of Education. Latinos, like Noriega, made up 7,004 of those suspensions. Black students had the second highest total, at 3,051 suspensions.

Neither education experts nor practitioners argue that students shouldn’t be held accountable for misdeeds or disruptions. But here’s the catch: A huge chunk of suspensions aren’t handed out for extreme violence or drug possession, but for “willful defiance,” a catch-all term that can include anything from disrespectful behavior to forgetting to turn a cell phone off.

And in San Diego Unified, more Latino students were suspended for willful defiance than every other student subgroup combined.

The numbers show that Latinos make up 54 percent of the suspensions in the district. That’s notable — as they make up only 46 percent of the district — but not all together surprising, given the issues facing other districts.

But when we look at black students, the situation is more alarming. Black students make only 11 percent of the district, but count for 22 percent of all suspensions.

Compare that to white students, who make up 23 percent of  district students and only 5 percent of the suspensions.

Joe Fulcher, San Diego Unified’s chief student services officer, recognized that willful defiance is “kind of an open-ended category” but said that for now the district is still using it.

Fulcher said that San Diego Unified is in “the process of exploring” whether it’s smart to keep using willful defiance as a reason to suspend students in the future. “We plan to take a look at the numbers. If they look (disproportionate), then we’ll have to take a long look at this.”

Translation: The district does not have a specific plan for how and when it will revise its disciplinary policies – or whether it will at all.

In the 2011-2012 school year, almost half of the state’s suspensions were for willful defiance.

In June, KPBS reported that San Diego County schools varied widely on their disciplinary practices. For example, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista Unified and Fallbrook Union High School Districts used the category to justify between 50 and 55 percent of suspensions. Grossmont High School District, on the other hand, did not use willful defiance suspensions at all.

The American Civil Liberties Union called for schools to reconsider their approach to discipline in a 2010 report, in which it argued that students of color are disproportionately punished for defiance, disobedience and disrespect and overly punitive measures don’t necessarily make schools a safer place.

Dan Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, said that in response to tragedies like school shootings, the trend in school discipline has moved toward overreaction and overly punitive zero-tolerance policies.

“Overall, we’re seeing a lot of kids suspended for minor infractions,” said Losen. “All research says this is not educationally sound. When you’re essentially pushing kids out of school, without any adult supervision, you’re basically exacerbating the problem.”

‘A Clear Line’

Last May, the Los Angeles Unified school board took a ground-breaking step toward scaling back school disciplinary practices that have disproportionately impacted students of color. In a 5-2 vote, the board approved a ban suspending school children for wilful defiance.

The ACLU applauded the action, and helped draft a bill that would effectively ban schools from using willful defiance as a reason suspending elementary and middle school students, and limit its use for high school students.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a version of the measure. He said the bill took authority away from local schools.

Homayra Yusufi-Marin, a policy advocate for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said the bill would be a step in the right direction and that it would help reroute the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects black and Latino students.

“First, students are outcast and told that they’re bad or problematic. Then they’re transferred to another school, or they drop out on their own because they’re so far behind they could never catch up,” said Yusufi-Marin. “There’s a clear line that can be drawn between the groups of students who are being pushed of school and who are ending up in the criminal justice system.

Yusufi-Marin said supporters of the bill are working with Brown’s office to try to craft a measure that will pass.

A Tool for Teachers

Kearny High School teacher Danny Blas said that his teaching philosophy is rooted in social justice. He recognizes that black and Latino students are disciplined at higher rates, and said that this knowledge guides him as he responds to students’ behavior.

“I don’t think in my six years teaching I’ve ever suspended a student,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean Blas supports a statewide policy that would eliminate the use of willful defiance all together.

“I just wouldn’t want any tools taken away out of my hand,” he said. “I might not use it, but I like to know that it’s there if I need it. I wouldn’t want anyone who’s never been in my classroom making decisions about what I can and can’t do.”

Blas said that teachers in San Diego Unified have clearly defined policies for what to do about serious infractions like guns or drugs, but not for misbehavior that falls into a gray area – like refusing to do work.

Responses to that behavior, he said, can vary widely from site to site and from teacher to teacher. Hypothetically, if a student refused to participate, the teacher could push for his or her suspension. There’s no uniform approach.

Gary Orfield, a professor at UCLA and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, said that out-of-school suspension is a temporary fix that leads to a long-term problem.

“It’s important that this isn’t framed as an attack on teachers. It’s got to be framed as what it is: a symptom of a larger problem. And the numbers should be a fire bell telling us to pay attention,” he said.

Losen, Orfield’s colleague at the Civil Rights Project, said that it’s possible the reason Latino and black students are suspended at an overwhelming rate has to do in part with “implicit bias.”

“This means that we’re not consciously thinking of a child or group of students as bad or problematic, but we might associate certain negative stereotypes, which might change the way we respond to students’ behavior,” he said. “There’s this idea that if we kick misbehaving kids out of school, we’d create a better learning environment. This idea has no basis in research.”

What Else Works

Losen said he believes there are plenty of alternatives to suspensions that would be more effective.

In fact, multiple school districts around the state and country are already implementing alternative responses to misbehavior.

After the Office of Civil Rights investigated an Oakland school district to see whether they were punishing black students more often and more harshly, the district reformed its policies and promised to address them in a manner that does not require removal from school, whenever possible.

Denver has worked to institute restorative practices, like bringing in a mediator to help an offender and a victim work together to resolve a dispute. The idea is to hold students accountable while keeping them in school.

Large districts like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia have embraced policies that were initiated by concerned community groups, educators and policymakers rather than federal agencies.

Many of the remedies Losen and Orfield recommend aren’t complicated: Teachers could be offered more cultural and emotional training that could help de-escalate situations before they erupt. More emphasis could be placed on building relationships between parents and schools.

“California, of all places — with its broken criminal justice system — should know that punishing people to deal with a problem comes at a huge cost,” said Losen.

Correction: San Diego Unified’s chief student services officer is Joe Fulcher, not Joel Fulcher, as was written in a previous version of the story. We regret the error. 

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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