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Los Angeles: Epicenter of High School Dropouts — Or Are They Pushed?

Diane Lefer: Most kids who don't finish haven't "dropped out." They've been "pushed out" by a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment, and removal that disproportionately affects children of color.
Ashley Franklin of the Labor Coalition

Ashley Franklin of the Labor/Community Strategy Center

African American Drop Out Rate

Over a million US students who start high school this year won't finish. In Los Angeles, only about half of entering students graduate, earning the city the designation by Education Week as a "dropout epicenter." But the National Dignity in Schools Campaign reframes the issue: most kids who don't finish haven't "dropped out." They've been "pushed out" by a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment, and removal that disproportionately affects children of color.

In Los Angeles, African American students are two to three times more likely to be suspended than students of other ethnicities. School police in low-income neighborhoods hand out truancy and tardiness tickets--something most middle class parents have never heard of -- that carry exorbitant fines mounting into the hundreds of dollars. If unpaid, these turn into arrest warrants and divert young people out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

From October 11 through the 17th, as part of the Dignity in Schools National Week of Action, events in 16 cities throughout the US are calling attention to the crisis and promoting alternatives to suspensions, expulsions, and the criminalization of youth. Here in Los Angeles on Tuesday, October 12, a coalition of community organizations held a day-long information session in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board on Beaudry Avenue. Young people, mostly from the Labor/Community Strategy Center, decorated the chain link fence across the street with art and posters while parents, students, former students, and their advocates offered personal testimony and called for full implementation of School-wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) -- the new approach to discipline that the LAUSD Board itself mandated back in March 2007.

African American Drop Out Rate

Districts around the country that have fully implemented this model have seen up to a 60% reduction in disciplinary problems and suspensions. The LAUSD schools that have put it into practice have seen transformation in the school environment. But District 7, in South Los Angeles, arguably the district where youth are most in need of positive behavior support, has lagged far behind according to "Redefining Dignity in Our Schools," the recently released report based on research by the grassroots organization Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE), in collaboration with Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc., and Public Counsel Law Center. Markham Middle School, for example, entirely failed to implement the policy and also had the highest rate of suspensions. South LA schools continue to have more police, detectives, probation officers, and canine patrols than counselors. (To download the full report or executive summary on-line, please go here)

Attorney Laura Faer

Attorney Laura Faer

"Campuses are transformed into hostile territory," said Claudia Gomez of the Youth Justice Coalition. "The school day is an extension of the violence going on in our communities." In a six-month period, Gomez attended three different high schools, bringing her ongoing problems with her and getting herself kicked out of each due to fist fights and once for marijuana possession.

It's a pattern only too familiar to Judy Arriaza, social worker with Public Counsel: "suspension after suspension, transfer after transfer, grades suffer along with attitudes toward school and nowhere do we see any positive intervention" while a kid in trouble for "fighting or doing something wrong that could have been handled by school administration is instead turned over to the police."

When kids are pulled out of class again and again, they fall further and further behind making them even less able to function properly in class. And where do they go when suspended? With parents working and the school doors closed, kids end up getting into trouble. No doubt LAUSD has faced a daunting challenge when students bring violent or disruptive behavior to class but the district has relied for years on a form of triage -- labeling some kids as hopeless cases and throwing them away. "They kicked me out," Henry Sandoval recalled. "They told me don't come back."

Claudia Gomez

Claudia Gomez of the Youth Justice Coalition

SWPBS relies, instead, on the consistent teaching, modeling, reinforcement of appropriate behavior and discourages the reliance on punitive discipline. Intervention is preferred to exclusion. And parents are brought in and welcomed as collaborators.

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Gomez landed at last at the Youth Justice Coalition's charter school, Free LA High School, where gang intervention workers and counselors set her on the road to success. Sandoval, calling himself "a victim of the school to jail track," also eventually found his way to Free LA High where, he says, "They never gave up on me, even when I gave up on myself. We need motivation, not punishment."

Arriaza has seen what previously stigmatized youth can do. "We see them pull their grades up and graduate. But we can't keep putting out fires. There aren't enough advocates. Change has to come from above."

We should all care about this, said Laura Faer, attorney with Public Counsel. The status quo "costs all of us a fortune in futures lost" while the alternative -- SWPBS -- "makes teachers happier and makes schools safer."

Roslyn Broadnax

Roslyn Broadnax

A key component of SWPBS is parent involvement and Roslyn Broadnax is a deeply involved parent who, as a student back in 1979, found herself "pushed out" of Fremont High. Earning Ds in class, never bringing a report card home, she was nonetheless passed from grade to grade while unable to keep up with the work. "I became a young mother and when I had my child, I began looking back at the school system. I didn't want my child going through what I went through." Broadnax began volunteering at Fremont. Though she says she was made to feel unwelcome, she was determined to see that her children were treated fairly. "I don't call my kids graduates. I call them survivors of the system." She joined CADRE in the fight to win respect, dignity, and a quality education "not just for my child, but to stand up and be there when other parents can't."

After public events on Tuesday, the campaigners brought their testimony to the LAUSD Board and requested a meeting to discuss full implementation of SWPBS. Board member Yolie Flores -- but not the full board -- agreed to meet.

(LAUSD, take note: The Office of Civil Rights for the US Department of Education is now looking at school districts which have failed to reduce disproportionate exclusionary discipline rates. But let's not reform our system because we're afraid of legal consequences, i.e., punishment. Why not model for our kids this behavior: do the right thing.)

"Kid face closed doors wherever they look," said Gomez. "School should be the one place where kids feel welcome."

And where they are fully seen and respected. Anger mixed with disbelief still breaks through her voice when Broadnax recalls the counselor who told her she could feel proud of her son for being one of only three African American boys who was not classified as special ed. She is indeed proud of him. The young man is now attending law school.

diane lefer

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer's new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, has just been published. Co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, it is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change (including change in how we treat our youth) through action.