Local students are being suspended at a higher rate than their counterparts statewide, according to data released for the first time using the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, also called CALPADS.
In Lodi Unified School District, students were suspended in 2011-12 at a rate of 8.5 percent, compared to the state’s suspension rate of 5.7 percent.
And the district’s four middle schools have a much higher suspension rate than the four comprehensive high schools in Lodi and North Stockton. While Lodi High has an 8 percent suspension rate and Tokay High is at 7 percent, two middle schools — Millswood in Lodi and Delta Sierra in Stockton — have suspension rates exceeding 20 percent.
Student suspensions were once reserved for serious offenses such as fighting and bringing weapons or drugs on campus, but these days they’re just as likely for talking back to a teacher, cursing, walking into class late or even eye-rolling.
Students tend to misbehave more in middle school because they enter what for some of them is a difficult transition, according to Stephen Takemoto, coordinator of child welfare and attendance for Lodi Unified.
“They go from a single teacher (in elementary school) to six teachers for two years, with six different personalities and teaching styles,” Takemoto said.
Students tend to mature once they reach high school, said Takemoto, who has experience as a middle school principal and both a high school assistant and vice principal.
Former Lodi Unified teacher and current school board member George Neely said that a committee has been established to consider having some schools serve kindergarten through eighth grade on a single campus, though it hasn’t met yet.
In K-8 schools, students wouldn’t go to a new school for seventh grade and then be ready to leave that school a year later after completing eighth grade, Neely said.
In Galt, Liberty Ranch High School’s suspension rate was below the state average with just 65 suspensions, a rate of 5.3 percent. Galt High saw a few more suspensions: 76 total, a 7 percent rate.
The Galt Joint Union Elementary School District had 177 total suspensions, or a districtwide rate of 4.3 percent, which is below the state average. Its lone middle school, however, saw a rate of twice as much.
The most recently released state data show a total of 366,629 students suspended and 9,553 students expelled among the more than six million public school students in California.
In California, suspensions can include those served on campus — in an office or different classroom — or at home, or transferred to a community day school for a short period of time, depending on the infraction, the frequency and who requests it.
The California Education Code allows students to be suspended for no more than five days at a time, and no more than 20 days per school year, Takemoto said.
As for expulsions, a disciplinary board consisting of three Lodi Unified administrators consider the principal’s recommendation, Takemoto said. Then the disciplinary board’s recommendation goes to the school board for final approval in a closed-door meeting. While a suspended student stays home for up to five days, expelled students are required by state law to attend class at another location, Takemoto said.
In Lodi Unified, expelled students attend Walter Katnich Community Day School near Lower Sacramento Road and Harney Lane, or they are sent to a charter school or a program administered by the San Joaquin County Office of Education.
In Acampo, Houston School, a K-8 campus, had a 17 percent suspension rate for the 2011-12 school year, but Principal Allison Gerrity says that rate is an improvement over previous years. It has ways to reduce its suspension level.
“We also use consequences other than suspension when appropriate — lunch detention, in-school suspension and tutoring younger students,” Gerrity said. “The idea is that if a middle school student has chosen not to participate in their classroom learning, they can go help a younger student learn for the day. Sometimes the middle school student finds that remaining in their own class is preferable to helping first-graders sound out words.”
Bonnie Cassel, a Lodi Unified School District trustee for more than six years and former teacher in the district, agrees that in-school suspensions are preferable to sending students home. It’s been successful in other districts, Cassel said.
During in-school suspension, students are taken away from their classes and a school employee can discuss with them issues like anger management and how to get along with others better, Cassel said.
But only 64 suspensions were served in-school last year, according to the state Department of Education.
Having the personnel to oversee in-school suspension currently costs money that Lodi Unified doesn’t have, Cassel said. When the economy improves, she said, it would be good for the district to reconsider in-school suspensions.
More than 40 percent of suspensions statewide are for “willful defiance,” or any behavior that disrupts class, and critics say it’s a catch-all that needs to be eliminated because it’s overused for trivial offenses.
In Lodi Unified, “willful defiance” accounted for 58 percent of all suspensions last year.
The infraction has come under scrutiny as attention focuses on whether “zero tolerance” discipline policies instituted in many schools in the 1990s are working.
Earlier this year Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, introduced a bill to remove willful defiance as a reason for suspension and expulsion. His bill, AB 2242, would replace the willful defiance category with specific behaviors such as harassment, threats, intimidation, creating substantial disorder or a hostile environment.
“Common sense tells us that we cannot teach students who are not in school,” Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in a prepared statement. “I hope that parents, teachers, administrators, and students see this information as the starting point for discussions about how to find alternatives to suspension that sustain healthy learning environments while keeping as many students as possible in class.”
Because the 2011-12 data released earlier this month is the first year of suspension and expulsion information extracted from CALPADS, it will serve as a baseline for this data collection. The 2011-12 CALPADS data cannot be compared to prior year Uniform Management Information and Reporting System reports.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.