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Dropout rates have bearing on crime in any city

POSTED October 2, 2012 5:05 p.m.
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The beginning of a new school year is a good time to reflect on how we help youngsters develop into productive contributors to our community.

We all know that dropout rates are too high in our state, and that high school dropouts are less likely to contribute economically to our communities. There is also a clear link between school success and public safety. For every 10 percentage point increase in graduation rates among students, there is a corresponding trend of a 20 percent reduction in aggravated assaults and murders down the road.

I recently participated in a news briefing to release a new report highlighting the links between school discipline policies, student outcomes, and public safety. The report, "Classmates, Not Cellmates: Effective School Discipline Cuts Crime and Improves Student Success," shows that California public schools issued approximately 700,000 suspensions during the 2010-11 school year. For every 100 students in California, 11 suspensions were issued and the majority of them were for relatively minor, non-violent, non-drug-related incidents.

Law enforcement leaders understand the need to keep our school campuses safe. The problem, however, with suspending or expelling students for annoying or disrespectful behavior that does not amount to a safety issue is that instead of holding students accountable for behavior, sending them home rewards them with unsupervised time off from school. This school vacation typically does not yield the desired outcome of better behavior and attention to learning. Conversely, a recent study found that suspended or expelled students were three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system within one year compared to similar students with no suspensions or expulsions. Middle and high school students who had been suspended or expelled were also twice as likely as other students to be held back in school and were at greater risk of eventually dropping out altogether.

The suspension and expulsion rates among Ceres' schools are in line with the state average, but there is great variation between particular schools. And notably, Ceres schools are doing quite well in overall student performance when compared to many other school districts. Some schools have suspension and expulsion rates up to seven times higher than other local schools serving students of the same ages and grades. A student who is misbehaving is typically a young person who needs more attention, not less. Students kept out of school tend to fall behind and suffer academically, and behavior problems left unaddressed can lead to more serious offenses in the long run.

Our schools are trying to serve larger classrooms with fewer resources than ever before, and they need our support. Parents need to make school attendance a priority, and inform school officials when obstacles to attendance and learning need to be addressed. Community leaders can support parents and students by ensuring safe routes to and from school, and access to medical care, to include mental health care, for families in crisis. School administrators and teachers can implement proven behavior improvement strategies like positive behavioral interventions and support to create clear behavioral expectations, reward positive behavior, and utilize individualized interventions for problem behavior. Schools using these strategies have not only experienced fewer suspensions and expulsions, but have improved attendance (thus increasing state funds received) and even greatly improved school-wide test scores. State policymakers can support and incentivize schools' adoption of these proven strategies. The governor signed some important bills in this regard, but, regrettably vetoed a bill that would have offered training on effective discipline policies to schools with very high suspension rates. This important policy conversation will continue next year; in the meantime, voters will have the opportunity this Fall to support revenue streams for our schools to avoid further cuts to education budgets.

We all have roles to play, and an enormous stake, in ensuring that all students stay engaged in learning and graduate from high school, and in guiding students when they make mistakes along the path to adulthood.
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