Automatic suspensions falling out of favor across California

The concept of zero tolerance is falling increasingly out of favor.

Last year, Santa Rosa City Schools made a high-profile switch to a restorative justice program that asks students to make amends for their punishable offenses while staying in class. Schools in Oakland, Los Angeles and Contra Costa have adopted similar programs.

San Francisco City Schools in January adopted a policy prohibiting suspensions or expulsions for "willful defiance." Instead, the district requires officials to use alternatives to sending kids home.

Begun in the 1980s with the war on drugs, the concept of zero tolerance later addressed gun violence. But it has since stretched to include policies on student behavior and prescriptive discipline.

In 2009-10, more than 3.3 million students in kindergarten through 12th grade across the United States were estimated to have lost classroom time because of out-of-school suspensions, according to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

The American Pediatrics Association last year called for a reduction in expulsions and out-of-school suspensions, contending the negative effects of so much missed classroom time are extensive.

A state law that went into effect in January 2013 was intended to address this dynamic. It requires school administrators to try alternative methods, such as restorative justice or community service, before meting out suspensions.

While there are five offenses that mandate expulsion, what is considered a suspendable offense is up to districts.

"Our thing was not to have nuclear devices for offenses for which kids can learn and change," said Carlos Alcala, communications director for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who authored AB 1729, requiring administrators to first offer alternatives to suspension.

Ammiano would agree that kids should not be drinking at lunch, Alcala said. "But I think you can say very clearly that if you send a kid home for three days, they are not benefitting in the way they would be if they were in school."

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