Santa Rosa school district working to cut high suspension totals

Santa Rosa City Schools suspends middle and high school students at a rate exceeded by only three other large districts in California.

Of the 4,587 suspensions in the 2011-12 school year — a rate of four for every 10 students — nearly 1,500 were for violence or drugs. Many of the cases involved repeat offenders.

Nearly three times as many Latinos were suspended than whites, even though the groups make up roughly equal portions of the student population in middle and high schools.

African-American students, who represent just 3 percent of the secondary enrollment, represented 7percent of the overall suspensions that year.

"This district has not been successful," said the district's first-year superintendent, Socorro Shiels. "We've got numbers that are too high."

District officials said the numbers reflect years of entrenched policy based largely on the concept of zero tolerance of misconduct. But that philosophy has come under fire by educators and youth advocates who contend that sending troubled kids home — away from an educational environment with little to no supervision and no connection to their misdeed — is misguided.

"There is nothing more consequential and difficult than sitting down with a person you have harmed and hearing how you have impacted them," said David Yusem, program manager for the restorative justice program at Oakland Unified School District. "It's much more difficult than going home and playing video games for a few days."

The state rankings of districts with more than 10,000 students show Santa Rosa's suspension rate is double that of Fresno Unified, three times greater than Oakland's and more than four times that of Compton's in Los Angeles County.

Only San Lorenzo Unified, Roseville and Vallejo had higher rates of suspensions in 2011-12, the most recent data available in state records.

"We are on a trajectory to nowhere," said Frank Pugh, who is the longest-serving district trustee, having been first elected in 1990. "This is not all rosy information, but information that we need to confront and see and understand."

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