News item: A 7-year-old Maryland boy is suspended from school after chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a pistol.

News item: California public schools meted out more than 375,000 suspensions and expulsions during the 2011-12 school year. That's the equivalent of about one of every 20 students in the state.

As far as we know, none of them involved pastries. But we can't be certain, because the official reason for fully half of all suspensions and a quarter of all expulsions from California public schools is "willful defiance."

That's vague enough to encompass pretty much everything from swallowing the offending Pop-Tart before it's booked into evidence to setting fire to the chemistry lab.

With the state releasing new data on suspensions in grades K-12, school districts, including Santa Rosa's, are beginning to re-examine their approach to discipline.

In Los Angeles, the school board voted this past week to eliminate willful defiance as a reason for suspension, saying it's applied disproportionately to minority students and leads to more disciplinary problems for students down the line. A bill pending in Sacramento would eliminate it statewide.

The Santa Rosa City Schools district has yet to enact any policy changes. But district officials are justifiably disturbed by a suspension rate that's sharply higher than the state average.

There were nearly 4,600 suspensions in 2011-12, according to data compiled by the state Department of Education. In a district with 11,300 students, that's the equivalent of four of every 10 students, or about four times the state average.

As is the case with other districts, black and Hispanc students in Santa Rosa schools are more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

And among districts with more than 10,000 students, only three in the entire state suspend more middle school and high school students than Santa Rosa.

"We've got numbers that are too high," first-year Superintendent Socorro Shiels told Staff Writer Kerry Benefield for her report on suspensions ("Santa Rosa school district working to cut high suspension totals," May 12).

School officials say it's counterproductive for students to miss class. They're right. They also say suspensions are a nuisance for parents who have to miss time at work. That's right, too. So is the notion that some students see suspensions as a free day off rather than punishment.

But it's probably not a coincidence that schools are focusing on suspensions in an era of budget pressure. Schools lose their daily attendance money for suspended students, just as they do for those who are absent due to illness. For the Santa Rosa district, that added up to $350,000 lost in 2011-12.

Zero tolerance became a popular approach for schools worried about drugs and real weapons — offenses worthy of suspension or expulsion. But zero tolerance, as with so many inflexible rules, has too many unintended consequences.

Santa Rosa schools are experimenting with restorative justice, an approach that requires offending students to confront the harm they caused others and themselves. That's an approach likely to recognize the real threat of a Pop-Tart — calories.