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Long Beach schools need to overhaul discipline policies, report says

California Academy of Math and Science in the Long Beach Unified School District charges students fees for physical education uniforms that they are required to wear.
California Academy of Math and Science in the Long Beach Unified School District charges students fees for physical education uniforms that they are required to wear.

This story has been updated.

As many large public school districts in California overhaul their student discipline policies with the aim of eliminating racial disparities, Long Beach Unified School District may be falling behind. 

That's according to a new report by the Children’s Defense Fund – California and Public Counsel, which found that disparities in the number of suspensions issued to black and white students in Long Beach is increasing. 

The findings are perhaps a surprising piece of bad news coming out of the district, which has been hailed as sparking a "Long Beach Miracle" because of its work advancing student achievement.

“There’s a lot of students who haven’t been a part of this Long Beach Miracle,” said the study's co-author Angelica Salazar. “There’s a need talk about what those challenges are and how the district could be stronger.”

Black students are 14 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, the study's data analysis showed, while Latino and Pacific Islander students are four times more likely to get suspended than white students in the district.

A written statement provided by Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou on Wednesday called the report inaccurate because it doesn’t use suspension figures from the California Department of Education, which show smaller racial disparities. According to those numbers, black students in Long Beach Unified are six times more likely to be suspended than white students. 

He also criticized the report for including alternatives to suspension -- such as detention, or removal to another room on campus -- as suspensions.

Report co-author Salazar said her methodology is more accurate because state suspension figures only include the number of students suspended, which obscures multiple suspensions. By using the total number of suspensions, she said her report captures a fuller picture of how often they take place. Salazar said she included detentions and other removals because, like suspensions, these punitive measures also hurt students’ education by removing them from the learning environment, and her organization advocates that school districts come up with alternatives that don’t have that potential.

The group also criticizes the school district’s spending on school safety – $35 million in a recent three-year period, according to its data. The school district defended that spending in its statement, noting that it makes up 1.5 percent of the overall budget in that time period. But the study points out that spending on Safe and Civil, the district's behavior management program – $117,112 in the same period – pales in comparison.

And unlike many other urban districts, which have over the past several years moving towards a discipline system that emphasize restorative justice, the report found that Long Beach's written policies continue to focus more on punitive measures. 

“Compared to Oakland, compared to [LAUSD], compared to Fresno, Long Beach hasn’t made that policy shift, or that funding shift,” Salazar said

She said Long Beach has not taken steps like L.A. Unified’s adoption of a Discipline Foundation Policy and its School Climate Bill of Rights.

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District banned suspending students for “willful defiance,” a category of disruptive behavior that is vaguely defined, which means enforcement can vary widely from school district to school district.

Long Beach Unified has not banned suspending students based on willful defiance district-wide.

The Children’s Defense Fund report recommends Long Beach Unified overhaul its school discipline policies to lower the high proportion of black and Latino students suspended. The group also wants the school district to spend additional funds for more counselors and restorative justice programs like those in Los Angeles and other school districts.

“We are doing that,” said school board member Megan Kerr, who represents parts of north Long Beach where many black and Latino families struggle to get by.

Kerr said the school district’s approach has been to let campuses decide whether to adopt the student discipline methods. The Children’s Defense Fund said the school district needs to adopt changes from the top. Both sides said they’re open to coming to a middle ground.

Kerr said a middle school recently chose to use flexible funds to contract an outside group to hold campus conversations on racial justice. The school district is also supporting a school discipline improvement effort called Every Student Matters with city and non profit groups.

The school district is already carrying out many of the report’s recommendations, she said, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed.

“We are not perfect and we are the first ones to say, we need to work harder," she said.

This story has been updated to include more information about the report's methodology.

The Children’s Fund report was funded in part by the California Endowment. SCPR receives some funding from the California Endowment, but SCPR maintains complete editorial control.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Angelica Salazar's first name, omitted reference to Public Counsel, and incorrectly attributed $117,112 spent on counselors. KPCC regrets the errors.