Suspending students is on the decline in Sonoma County, but students of color still see high rates

Districts are trying to come up with alternative forms of discipline to keep students from falling further behind.|

A tall teenage girl with black hair, bangs and star-shaped earrings walked to class in the cold winter air on a recent Wednesday morning.

Her name is Megan, and she is an 18-year-old senior at Ridgway High School, a continuation school in Santa Rosa.

When she lived in Texas, she was suspended from school twice: two days for vaping and a week during a police investigation into allegations about her, which her school later found to be unfounded.

“It didn’t do anything that the school intended it to do,” Megan said of her suspension. “It just made all my teachers see and treat me differently because they all got emails about why I was suspended.”

Worst of all, it put her behind her peers in classes ― some teachers even refused to send her the work she missed, she said.

Since she moved to Sonoma County, she said schools don’t seem to hand out suspensions as often, instead giving struggling students the resources they need.

And Megan is mostly correct.

What the numbers show

  • Sonoma County’s total suspensions have decreased almost 30% since 2019, according to California Department of Education data.
  • Many districts suspended students of color at higher rates than their white peers.
  • There were 3,128 suspensions countywide in the 2021-2022 school year.
  • Approximately one third of those students were suspended more than once.
  • Many districts, including Petaluma City Schools, West Sonoma County Union High and Windsor Unified, made significant strides since 2016 in decreasing their suspension rate or having zero suspensions overall.
  • Some districts did not make the same progress. Roseland School District increased their suspensions from 20 suspensions in 2019 to 52 suspensions in 2022.
  • Other small elementary-only districts like Mark West Union Elementary and Waugh Elementary maintained zero suspensions both years.
  • California’s suspension rate last year was 3.4%, down 17.37% since 2019.
  • Approximately one third of those students were suspended more than once in the year.

A shift in philosophy

According to Matthew Harris, the superintendent of Petaluma City Schools, there’s been a change in philosophy around suspensions locally, but also statewide.

“Our guiding light has become: use an alternative direction whenever possible when we’re talking about suspending students,” he said.

He also said that research for years has shown that removing students from classes is not effective in helping them academically and it can even be harmful.

“The students who most need this extra support and need us to wrap our arms around them, when we just suspend them and send them home for the day to go and play video games or do whatever they're going to do ― I guess our question is ‘why?’”

Sometimes it’s necessary to suspend a student, in the case of a serious incident, such as those outlined in California’s Education Code section 48900, which include violence, threats to another person and illegal acts, he said.

But in their district, they’ve been pursuing a multitiered system of support to prevent and respond to behavioral issues.

  1. The first level is to set clear expectations with rules and a welcoming environment built on fostering healthy relationships.
  2. The second level is to have restorative conversations, between students, a trusted adult and counselors.
  3. The third level and last resort is to move up the ladder of consequences based on behavior.

“We need to be keeping them in our system, we need to be supporting them as much as we possibly can,” Harris said.

At Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, they follow a similar approach that includes bringing “on-campus restorative specialists who help rebuild the community when harm has occurred,” according to Vanessa Wedderburn, a district spokesperson.

Students of color suspended more

Across most districts, students of color were suspended at much higher rates than their white classmates.

Across the country, school officials discipline BIPOC students, especially Black males, with more suspensions, expulsions, corporal punishment, and referrals to law enforcement than white students, according to the Department of Education.

Children who are suspended or expelled are often more likely to fall behind on schoolwork and less likely to graduate. A 2017 study by the Civil Rights Project shows that school suspensions cost California taxpayers $2.7 billion for one graduating class.

Students who are consistently punished in school, especially students of color, also have a much higher risk of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system and as adults, the criminal justice system, a root cause in the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

It also creates a school climate where students of color feel they’re not welcome or safe.

For example, at Petaluma City Schools in the 2021-2022 school year:

  • 7.7% of African American students were suspended, even though they only make up 1% of the school population
  • 5.6% of Latino students, who make up more than one third of the students, were suspended.
  • 2.9% of white students were suspended. They make up about half of the student population.

Similarly alarming numbers are found across the state, according to the CA School Dashboard. African American and American Indian students had high suspension rates, along with foster youth, students experiencing homelessness and students with disabilities.

A report by Black Minds Matter Coalition found that Black kids are suspended at a rate that is 2.6 times higher than the statewide average.

“We’re working to understand why that’s happening at such a disproportionate rate,” said Maite Iturri, the assistant superintendent of student services at Petaluma City Schools. “There’s a lot of theories out there.”

At Santa Rosa City Schools, the district is looking into the suspension data as well as CalPADS reports, academic test results and enrollment, Wedderburn said.

Staff are also collecting “street data,” which means conducting interviews with students and “listening campaigns” to learn from the students who are at the center of this, she said.

At Petaluma City Schools, higher number of suspensions for minority students is a disparity that the school is not proud of and wants to fix, said Harris, especially because suspensions are not proven to be effective.

“Instead of sending a student away, we want to bring them in closer.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8531 or On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Alana Minkler

Education Reporter

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering education, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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