Valley Center Middle School in Valley Center on Aug. 1, 2023.
Valley Center Middle School in Valley Center on Aug. 1, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

For at least a decade, Black students in San Diego County have been more likely to be suspended than any other demographic. But that changed in 2021, when suspensions of Indigenous children narrowly crept past suspensions of Black children.  

Sort of. 

While raw county numbers show Indigenous students are now more likely to be suspended, and are issued more suspensions relative to their population than any other demographic, one school district is driving that change: Valley Center-Pauma Unified School District.  

Two metrics to pay attention to when it comes to suspension: the first is the suspension rate, meaning what percentage of students in a demographic have been suspended. The second is the total number of suspensions issued to those students. While certain demographics may have smaller overall numbers of suspensions, these two metrics control for a student group’s population so accurate comparisons can be made. 

Of all the Indigenous students in county schools, 15 percent attend schools in Valley-Center Pauma. But the district accounts for around 38 percent of Indigenous student suspensions and around 42.5 percent of the total suspensions issued. 

Indigenous children are the most disproportionately suspended demographic in the county in both metrics – when the district is included. But when the district is removed, the countywide suspension rate for Indigenous students drops from 5.5 percent to 4 percent. 

In short, Valley Center-Pauma is suspending so many Indigenous children that it’s effectively inflated the suspension rate of the entire county – which is home to 42 other school districts and local education agencies. And it comes at a time when overall suspensions are down countywide.  

The District with the Most Indigenous Students Also Suspends Them the Most 

San Diego County has more reservations than any other county in the United States, and the second highest population of Indigenous people in California

Valley Center is a census-designated area just north of Escondido and ringed by hills and mountains. Five reservations fall within Valley Center-Pauma’s district boundaries – the San Pasqual reservation at the south, the Rincon and La Jolla reservations at the west and the Pala and Pauma and Yuima reservations at the north. 

That density of tribal land is why Valley Center-Pauma has more Indigenous students than any other district in the county. Despite the comparatively large population, the district also suspended Indigenous students at a significantly higher rate than any other district. Valley Center-Pauma’s roughly 14 percent suspension rate for Indigenous children is more than double its suspension rate for Latino children and nearly three times that for White children. 

Ron McCowan, superintendent of Valley Center-Pauma, couldn’t explain why Indigenous students were suspended at such a high rate at the district, but said “each student is a completely different situation.” 

“Suspension isn’t necessarily the first tool we go to. It’s not a tool we like using … We’re very concerned about any student we suspend and especially when we’re looking at a group we work very closely with,” McCowan said. 

Valley Center High School in Valley Center on Aug. 1, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler
Valley Center High School in Valley Center on Aug. 1, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Indigenous students, families and activists have long called for change at Valley Center-Pauma, citing what they view as persistent discrimination and educational disparities.  

Ami Admire is Payómkawichum from the local Rincon reservation and a former student of Valley Center-Pauma. She’s been working with Indigenous youth for more than 20 years and speaking out against educational disparities at the district.  

“These are not new stories,” Admire said. “Our generation has those stories and my parents’ generation does too. Our aunties and our mothers were at the same podium fighting for these children 40 years ago.” 

Disproportional student suspensions have been a concern for education officials for years, specifically the high suspension rates of students of color. Research shows that not only do suspensions put children on a path toward subsequent arrests, a phenomenon often dubbed the school-to-prison pipeline, but they also make them less likely to succeed academically. 

Admire said that among Indigenous communities, the pipeline is even more dire due to the prevalence of substance abuse.  

Data shows both that Indigenous people have the highest overdose rate of any demographic in California, and that the rates of overdose deaths in the Valley Center-Pauma area and neighboring communities are some of the highest in the county

But Indigenous students aren’t the only demographic at Valley Center-Pauma with soaring suspension rates. The district also suspends Black students at a higher rate than any other in the county.  

Other Districts Contributing to the Trend 

Valley Center-Pauma isn’t the only district with sky-high suspension rates for Indigenous students. 

The four districts that suspend Indigenous students the most are all in North County. 

Bonsall Unified has the second-highest suspension rate for Indigenous students. There, the suspension rate for Indigenous students is nearly 12 percent – five times more than the district’s overall suspension rate. Indigenous students only represent around 3.5 percent of the district’s enrollment, but they account for around 18 percent of the students suspended and around 26.5 percent of the district’s total suspensions.

San Dieguito’s 11.5 percent suspension rate for Indigenous students and Carlsbad Unified’s 8.3 percent rate are the next two highest.  

When you zoom out, countywide suspensions have shrunk significantly since 2011, reaching their lowest point in at least a decade. Even Valley Center-Pauma’s suspension rate has shrunk in the past decade, though it’s only shaved off two points from the suspension rate of Indigenous students.  

Still, similar disproportionalities exist throughout the county. When you exclude Valley Center-Pauma from the countywide suspension numbers, like in previous years, Black children are the most disproportionately suspended demographic. They remain nearly three times as likely to get suspended as White students. 

Countywide, the suspension rate of Indigenous students has shrunk slightly less than that of Black students.  

‘A Conscious Movement’ 

Valley Center High School in Valley Center on Aug. 1, 2023.
Valley Center High School in Valley Center on Aug. 1, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Macedonio Arteaga, a restorative justice expert who has spent nearly 30 years working with at-risk Indigenous and Latino students, wasn’t surprised by Valley Center-Pauma’s suspension numbers. He said there’s long been disproportionate discipline against students of color in the region. 

Arteaga said part of the problem is a lack of coordinated effort. For many years, the disproportionate suspensions of Black students have been in the spotlight, and for good reason, but the same sort of attention hasn’t been paid to Indigenous students.  

“If there’s a conscious movement, then you’re going to find alternatives,” Arteaga said. “If there isn’t a conscious movement, you’re going to suspend that kid.”  

Arteaga said a key to making progress is confronting the discrimination and bias ingrained in society and the education system and educators themselves. And instead of laying the onus exclusively on families or on students, educators need to ask questions that get to the heart of why students may be exhibiting behaviors that drive suspensions, he said. For example: Do students feel welcome when they come to campus? Is their culture represented? Is their larger community represented?  

Jacob Alvarado Waipuk, is a tribal member of the San Pasqual Kumeyaay and is pursuing a doctorate in education at San Diego State University where he also works as the college’s tribal liaison. Waipuk attended Valley Center-Pauma schools and said the sensitivity Arteaga described was missing when he was there.  

Waipuk said he had one teacher he felt really cared for Indigenous students, but aside from that he never had anyone advising him or pulling him into the counselor’s office to talk about things like college opportunities.  

“Throughout the whole time I went to school there, I didn’t have support … there was zero support for our Native students,” Waipuk said.  

Over the past year, McCowan said Valley Center-Pauma has tried to make its schools more welcoming to Indigenous students by incorporating tribal culture into schools. The district has also employed an Indigenous tutor at each school site and a teacher on special assignment to serve Indigenous students who splits their time between the middle and high school.  

A recently created program also allows students who’ve been suspended to complete classwork at a district facility and engage in conflict resolution activities.  

“Hopefully what happens is we change the behavior, but we still keep the student in the school,” McCowan said. 

He said the district has worked to develop strong relationships with the five tribes it serves, all of which are separate government entities and whose children have varying needs, and the Indian Education Centers of each of those tribes. He also hopes that the district’s suspension numbers for the latest school year – expected to be released in the coming months – show improvement. 

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

Join the Conversation


  1. What no committee and counselor to study what behavior they are getting suspended for and how to correct it? Nah, must be racist , just like Fentanyl is racist because it causes more OD’s.

  2. So what are the reasons for suspensions? A whole lot of words in this article and no reason why? Is it the fault of the students or fault of the biased teachers?

  3. Suspension of students of color has nothing to do with their suspension. It has to do with behavior. No school or district wants to suspend any students. Why don’t you do the real story – why are so many students of color suspended? Go deeper. I think that you will find there are real issues with families and how children are raised. But, of course, you won’t do that story. It would not be very popular with your bosses. The truth is often difficult to deal with, so it’s avoided.

  4. So much informative data is absent from this article that it reads like biased reporting.

    ** Where are the statistics on the reason the students were suspended? Not all incidents can be resolved by restorative practices, and not all incidents can be show to include racial or ethnic bias. For example, brandishing a gun at school is a huge safety issue and leads to suspension regardless of race or ethnicity. On the other hand, a student’s disrespect for authority could have aspects of implicit (or explicit) bias.

    **How many indigenous students attend the schools, and how many were suspended? Low numbers can easily skew the statistics. For example, if there are only 20 indigenous students at a school, just one student being suspended would bring the total “suspension rate” there to 5%.

  5. I read and reread this article hoping to find the reason ‘why’ this is happening. Jakob states there is racism and they are trying to work with the five tribes and even have a councilor and also this has taken place for 20+ years. This is clearly a problem! However, there is no WHY. Unfortunately, the term racism is over-used in today’s world. In this instance, please define racism with examples. Also, what is the true root cause? Jakob says it is complicated – fine but do your job and dig deeper!

    You cannot fix a problem without digging into the details. Is there a busing problem with the reservations? Is attending school difficult with limited options for tribal students? Jakob mentioned cultural issues – what is different and is it truly causing problems? If so, what can be done? Is there an issue with families in the tribe relative to their children? In certain communities with a higher rate of single mothers, it may be difficult to get their children to schools. Is this an issue? If so, what can be done? What about substance abuse, we see this hitting communities hard – is this an issue? If so, how is it affecting the kids, and what can be done?

    Jakob – the above questions are what a real journalist would be asking. Instead, you have a clickbait caption but no substance – making this article a ‘NOTHING BURGER’. I suggest going back, doing your job with real reporting, and identifying the root causes with potential solutions, areas that have been tried and succeeded and/or failed. You know – basic journalism work.

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