In the heart of Watts, where violence in nearby housing projects can spill over onto campuses, two of the city's toughest middle schools have long dealt with fights, drugs and even weapons.
Administrators typically have handled these problems by suspending students. But this year Markham and Gompers middle schools have reported marked reductions in that form of discipline — as has the L.A. Unified School District overall, where the suspension rate dropped to 1.5% last year from 8% in 2008.
The drop came after the Los Angeles Board of Education and L.A. schools chief John Deasy called for fewer suspensions as concern grew nationwide that removing students from school imperils their academic achievement and disproportionately harms minorities, particularly African Americans.
But have suspensions really become rarer?
Several African American parents at Markham recently alleged that administrators were sending their children home without officially suspending them. Markham Principal Paul Hernandez flatly denied that practice, known as "off-the-books" suspending.
Similar charges have been made elsewhere in L.A. Unified. The principal at Manchester Elementary in South Los Angeles was removed earlier this year following allegations that he sent at least 20 students home while directing staff not to mark them absent or suspended, according to two knowledgeable sources who asked for anonymity to avoid retaliation. A district official confirmed Gregory Hooker's removal "pending the outcome of an investigation" but declined to provide further details.
A confidential report by two community organizations in 2012 found that some principals were using "work-arounds" to district mandates to reduce suspensions. Maisie Chin, executive director of CADRE, a South Los Angeles nonprofit that has long worked on the discipline issue, declined to release the report but said it showed that some students were being sent home, sometimes with no given reason, depriving them of the due process rights in the formal suspension process.
"We do think the pressure to reduce suspensions is probably causing a lot of unintended consequences," Chin said.
Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Counsel, a Los Angeles pro bono law firm that co-wrote the report, said unofficial suspensions were "completely unlawful." Deasy issued a stern directive against them in 2012 and district officials have reiterated that message to administrators this year.
Federal officials in January issued the first guidelines on how to avoid racial disparities in student punishments and have launched investigations of several school districts, including L.A. Unified. In a 2011 voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Education, the nation's second-largest school system agreed to track and report discipline data and eliminate "inequitable and disproportionate" practices.
Last year, the L.A. school board became the first in the state to ban defiance as grounds for suspension; legislation would expand that ban statewide.
But those in the trenches say it hasn't been easy to comply with the mandates — especially since years of tight budgets have left limited funding for the extra staff and training they say are critical.
At Gompers, Principal Traci Gholar said she readily suspended disruptive students in 2011-12, her first year at the helm, to drive home to families that she was intent on building a safe, orderly and positive school climate.
When superiors questioned her high suspension rate, Gholar asked for new resources that would support alternative disciplinary approaches: a conflict resolution specialist, a restorative justice coordinator, more campus aides, performing arts events and other activities.
The extra help appears to have made a difference. According to school data, incidents involving student misbehavior declined from 1,035 in the last school year to 663 as of May of this year. And although most of the misbehavior was serious enough to warrant suspensions, Gompers made a greater effort to address it in alternative ways, reducing the suspension rate to 3% from 30% last year.
As Gompers students celebrated "peace week," featuring games and banners decrying violence and bullying, eighth-graders Wesley Price, Cindy Birrueta and Maria Gomez said the atmosphere on campus has improved greatly. Gomez said that "community building circles," in which students share experiences, build trust and forge friendships, have helped reduce tensions.
"When I first came here, there was a lot of gang violence and bullying," said Price, who is African American. "It still happens but not so much now. Everything is better."
Markham has also reported significant progress. Student incidents have declined from 1,732 in the last school year to 1,463 this year and the suspension rate has fallen to 7% from 12%. Like Gompers, Markham has received extra help, including a restorative justice coordinator.
Both are operated by the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, the nonprofit created by former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in an effort to turn around 17 low-performing schools.
Yet several black parents at Markham said their children were unfairly removed from school in illegal and off-the-books suspensions. Barbara Adamson said her sixth-grade son, Justin, was sent home at least 20 times after administrators told him, among other things, to "cool down" or that he was "out of control."
"I wanted him to be educated but they didn't want to teach him," Adamson said. "I'm sure they could have done something for Justin other than send him home to do nothing."
According to school data, 31 Markham students were sent home this school year without being suspended. Hernandez said the most common reason was student safety, and in every case except one parents consented, he said.
Both Gholar and Hernandez said such parent-approved precautions did not amount to unofficial suspensions. In one case, Gholar said, a conflict between students extended to their families and they felt threatened. She advised the families to keep their children at home until the school could help resolve the problem.
The parents' allegations of biased discipline practices have prompted concern in the broader community. Zoe Rawson of the Community Rights Campaign said her group discussed with parents the possibility of filing a complaint under the district's new discipline process. The Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable last week met with Hernandez, who denied anti-black bias and agreed to monitoring by parents and community members, both sides said.
In a May 22 letter, U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) called on Deasy to look into the allegations.
Alfredo Montes, a district official who monitors discipline practices at two dozen low-performing schools, said it was "definitely not" L.A. Unified policy to send students home for such reasons as to "cool off." James Noble, operations administrator of the South Los Angeles district office, issued a directive reminding principals not to push students from campus.
"Students may not be sent home at any time and parents may not be asked to pick up their student to avoid a suspension," he wrote. "These acts are not only a violation of District policy but also of individual civil rights."