Study: Los Angeles Unified closing equity gaps in school discipline

As the district layered on new policies over the past decade, suspensions fell

By Ross Brenneman

Image via Flickr user Patricia Glogowski/Licensed under Flickr Creative Commons

Los Angeles Unified School District has made major strides toward reducing suspensions while closing gaps between disproportionately disciplined groups, new research suggests.

USC Rossier postdoc Ayesha Hashim led the study, co-authored with Michigan State University professor Katharine Strunk and with USC Rossier PhD student Tasminda Dhaliwal.

The research looks at 12 years of LAUSD data to find that out-of-school suspensions in LAUSD fell as the district took several steps to address school climate.

In 2006-07, LAUSD implemented a Positive Behavioral Intervention System (PBIS), a framework for improving student social behavior. In 2011-12, the district banned suspensions for “willful defiance,” a vague categorization of unruly student behavior. And finally, in 2015, the district introduced a restorative justice discipline system, implemented through a phased rollout among different cohorts of schools as designated by the district.

After each stage of implementation, the authors found a drop in suspension rates. While the researchers don’t claim causality, the data support the idea that successive impacts led to a major reduction in suspension inequities between historically marginalized groups.

“Our results suggest that districts can take proactive measures to address inequities in student discipline,” Hashim said. “At the same time, districts can only lower suspension rates so far and can even backslide in their progress to reduce suspensions when they narrowly target student discipline for willful defiance.”

Progress, but more research needed

LAUSD was the first district in California to pass a ban on suspension for willful defiance, setting off a wave of similar moves in other districts, with the state ultimately passing legislation that banned the practice in early grades. That law sunsets in 2018, and Governor Jerry Brown has shown little interest in extending it.

Civil rights groups and education groups contend that such suspensions, prone to highly subjective interpretation by educators, disproportionately impact students of color.

The researchers looked at suspension trends for students based on race, sex, grade level, special education status and cohort. They found mostly positive results across all characteristics studied as LAUSD implemented its new rules and programs.

For example, the trends revealed an elimination of suspension gaps between Hispanic students and their White and Asian peers. Gaps also diminished between females and males, and between elementary and high school students.

However, the district’s progress in reducing the suspension gap between Black students and White and Asian students stalled, leaving a persistent, albeit smaller, suspension rate difference between these student groups.

“The research on suspension bans and restorative justice programs is relatively nascent,” Hashim said. “What I can say is that LAUSD has made tremendous progress so far in reducing suspension gaps between Black and White students and special education and non-special education students. But we need more to isolate the impacts of these policies on student discipline rates—and related outcomes—and to understand their long-term effects.”

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