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California schools suspend students at a lower rate, but there's still a racial gap

California's public schools suspended students of all ethnic backgrounds at a lower rate in the 2013-14 school year than the previous school year, and the gap between the rates of suspension for black and white students narrowed — though black students were still disciplined at a much higher rate than whites, according to a UCLA report released Monday.

The report examined data that the state has collected since the 2011-2012 school year. Comparable data aren't available for earlier years, said report author Dan Losen, director of UCLA's Center for Civil Rights Remedies.

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Tracking who gets disciplined, how often and for what offenses has become more prominent in education research in recent years, in part because understanding those issues can offer insight into other aspects of student performance, researchers say.

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FOR THE RECORD

7:31 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that California's schools are suspending fewer students, but the UCLA study measured the number of suspensions per 100 students -- not the total number of students who were suspended. According to the study, the number of suspensions per 100 students in California decreased.

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By removing students from a classroom setting, suspensions contribute to lower graduation rates and increased incarceration, affecting how students do in other areas of life, some studies have found.

For every 100 black students, there were 25.6 suspensions compared to 6.5 suspensions for every 100 white students, according to the UCLA study.

The number of suspensions statewide declined from 709,580 for the 2011-2012 school year to 503,101 for the 2013-2014 school year. Most of that decline stems from schools using suspension less frequently to address "disruption or defiance." That catchall category includes acts of "willful defiance," such as purposely interrupting a teacher or distracting a class.

Those offenses, Losen said, are the most subjective and lead to the most racial disparity in suspensions.

Racial disparities are much lower for the most objective and serious categories — violence with injury and possession of weapons or illicit drugs, Losen found.

The Los Angeles Unified School District led the statewide move to reduce suspensions by banning "willful defiance" suspensions in 2013.

That change affected the 2013-2014 school year, but suspensions were already on the decline before it was policy, in part because LAUSD reached an agreement with the federal Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in 2011 to reduce the racial disparities in school discipline, Losen said.

The state Legislature followed suit last year with a law limiting willful defiance suspensions.

Some educators have worried that limiting suspensions for minor offenses could lead to more suspensions for violent behavior, but those figures are also lower, Losen said.

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There isn't comprehensive data on what is happening to these students instead of suspensions, Losen said. Some districts are using restorative justice practices, a type of communal decision-making that can be difficult to implement effectively.

Training teachers to recognize their biases and to de-escalate classroom situations could also be helpful, Losen said.

Losen said his next step would be to look at the long-term effects of the decline in suspensions to see if graduation rates increase, if fewer students are referred to law enforcement and if academic achievement increases.

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