Not long ago, Garfield High School was issuing almost as many suspensions as diplomas. Two, three, four times a day, deans at the East Los Angeles campus were sending home unruly students—a tally that, in 2008-09, peaked at 683, while the senior class numbered 724. The way administrators saw it, removing kids for even minor misbehavior, under the California Education Code’s vague catchall of “willful defiance,” came with the turf: a Mexican American neighborhood with persistent gangs and few opportunities. Garfield was such a failure that in 2009 the district invited charter operators to submit takeover plans.
“We were going in the wrong direction,” says Jose Huerta, who became principal during the 2009-10 school year, after parents, protective of Garfield’s nearly century-old legacy, persuaded the district to keep the school in local hands.
A bearish figure with a jet-black mustache, Huerta grew up in East L.A., two blocks from Garfield. Over his protests, his own parents had forbidden him to attend the school in the 1970s, insisting on a collar-and-tie parochial education instead. To give the community the school he felt it deserved, Huerta adopted a daring strategy—one at odds with the harsh discipline policies that have swept schools since the Columbine tragedy in 1999. In a zero-tolerance era, Garfield would be the most tolerant: not complaisant but compassionate, intent on deciphering and resolving problems instead of ushering them out the door. On Huerta’s watch, there would be no more suspensions. “If I suspend them,” he says, “I can’t teach them.”
Students who were suspended just once were nearly three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system.
In the four years since Huerta took over, Garfield has suspended exactly three students. Even some of those elicited his sympathy: One kid, whose family worked in the recycling business, had inadvertently come to school with a box cutter in his backpack. But state law mandates suspensions for weapons and Huerta had no choice. Over the same period, Garfield’s API—a 1,000-point index that California uses to measure test performance—has jumped from 593 to 714. The graduation rate has soared from 54 to 85 percent.
From Baltimore to Denver to Walla Walla, school officials are embracing measures similar to Huerta’s, determined to slow the machinery that annually suspends more than three million students nationwide—as many as half of them for relatively minor offenses. These moves are being propelled by a growing body of research showing that suspensions, rather than correcting bad behavior, disengage students and help funnel them into a “school to prison” pipeline.
One study in Texas showed that students who were suspended just once were nearly three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Other studies reported that students suspended even once from ninth grade were twice as likely to drop out. And data from more than 26,000 U.S. middle and high schools shows that suspensions disproportionately befall kids who already face steeper odds: In 2009-10, according to the UCLA Center for Civil Rights Remedies, 24 percent of black secondary students were suspended, compared to 12 percent of Latinos, eight percent of whites, and two percent of Asians. Students with disabilities—learning disorders, mostly, which can contribute to behavioral issues—were suspended at a rate of 19 percent. For African American boys with disabilities, the rate jumped to 36 percent.
“Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in January, as he and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued guidelines warning the nation’s schools not to violate civil rights laws when meting out discipline.
At Garfield—lauded in the 1980s for the success of math teacher Jaime Escalante, the subject of the movie Stand and Deliver—the moratorium on suspensions was part of a broader rethinking of the school’s relationship with its students. Huerta divided an unwieldy campus into five learning communities, enlisted parent volunteers, and sacrificed technology upgrades to assemble a team of counselors, tutors, and social workers. Rather than dwell on punishments, his staff focused on rewards—such as staging a red-carpet walk during Oscar season for students with perfect attendance. That might be a uniquely L.A. incentive, but schools everywhere are now experimenting with similar approaches, known in the field as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. A 2012 study of 37 U.S. schools found that such tactics have reduced office discipline referrals by 33 percent.
During the turbulent year when Huerta took over at Garfield, a freshman named Marco Antonio Aguilar was among the regular headaches. “I was still in that juvenile mentality, just all negative thoughts,” says Aguilar, who was then affiliated with a tagging crew and grappling with attention deficit disorder. But Huerta’s team always stepped in, assessing the boy’s needs, offering advice. “They helped me resurrect myself,” says Aguilar, who is graduating this summer.
Hoping to replicate Huerta’s success, L.A.’s Board of Education voted last May to abolish willful defiance as grounds for suspension—a category that encompasses everything from talking back to using a cell phone, and that accounted for 48 percent of California’s 710,000 suspensions in 2011-12. Activists cheered the move; traditionalists scoffed. “Here’s what the school board is saying: ‘We surrender,’” Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly told his viewers. Under the new policy, students can still be suspended for more serious offenses, including drugs and weapons.
A bill is now making its way through the California legislature that would eliminate, statewide, willful defiance suspensions for students in kindergarten through fifth grade and permit suspension of older students only after a third offense. A similar bill passed in 2012, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. “I vetoed it because I used to be willfully defiant myself,” Brown, a product of parochial schools, told a gathering of business leaders. “Getting kicked out of school, that got my attention.”
As Huerta has shown, of course, enlightened administrators can devise meaningful solutions even without a change in the law. “There’s nothing here that’s rocket science,” he says, greeting students one recent morning with a mix of Spanglish and fist bumps. He lowered suspensions, but not expectations. “Buenos días,” he hollers to a straggler outside the main gate. “A little late, young lady. What happened? Whose fault was it today?”