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Keeping kids in school: Suspensions, expulsions last resort for CUSD
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The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is looking to shed light on what they call the "problem of excessive use of suspension and expulsion of students as a disciplinary tool in the nation's schools."

The national study will gather data to ensure disciplinary practices are carried out fairly and to ensure school districts are keeping expelled or suspended students in a learning environment.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said he applauds the efforts by the OCR.

"I encourage all local educational agencies to continue to collect and analyze their suspension and expulsion data to determine whether their current practices are meeting the needs of their students, keeping in mind that the objective is to keep as many students as possible in a learning environment," Torlakson said. "We encourage all districts and sites to continue to seek behavioral interventions and options other than suspension and expulsion as a means of addressing student behavior."

Locally, the Ceres Unified School District is doing what it can to ensure the continued education of expelled students. CUSD Director of Student Services John Christiansen said discipline practices have improved since the days when a troubled student was kicked out of school and just stayed at home.

"Community School has been around a long time," said Christiansen. "They don't stay at home. We require them to be enrolled in school."

Last year CUSD had 2,514 suspensions out of a student population of 11,941; and 2,715 during the 2009-10 school year. Christiansen said many of those suspensions could be repeat offenders and is not the total number of students actually suspended.

Of last year's suspensions 560 occurred at Blaker Kinser Junior High, 402 at Central Valley High School, 350 at Ceres High School, 280 at Mae Hensley Junior High School and 110 at Argus High School.

"Usually the schools do a very good job of reminding the kids of the rules," said Christiansen. "Students are given alternatives to suspension first but if that doesn't work we do resort to suspensions. The schools do a good job of doing a lot of interventions before suspending."

Suspensions and expulsions depend on a variety of factors, including age, past history and how much counseling has taken place. Complete defiance, talking too much in class, or fighting can all lead to suspension.

The numbers for CUSD expulsions fluctuates from year to year but are typically low. CUSD had 98 expulsions during the 2009-10 school year and 95 in 2010-11.

In an effort to keep expelled students in school, students are sent to alternative schools such as Ceres Community School on the former Memorial Hospital Ceres campus, the Stanislaus Military Academy in Turlock or the Stanislaus Arts Academy. The student agrees to adhere to a contract that governs his or her behavior and academic progress at these alternative schools. Should the student meet the terms of the contract they are let back into a traditional campus - sometimes within one semester or less.

Typically, said Christiansen, elementary school students are not expelled because of their age. They are counseled quite a bit.

The Education Code allows a school district to expel a student for various reasons such as brandishing a knife, selling drugs on campus or bringing a gun to school. Sometimes a students may be expelled for multiple suspensions. All expulsions - which typically run two semesters - must be approved by the School Board after a due process, said Christiansen.

For suspended students, the having "free" days off are quickly diminishing. Similar to Saturday school, suspended students are expected to attend a regular school day in a classroom separate from their peers.

"We try to keep suspended high school students on in-house suspension; it is more effective than sending the student to stay at home."

Community School is run by the Stanislaus County Office of Education. The system is not perfect because kids can end up spending a lot of time at home or on their own.

"One of the things that Community School will do is put the kids on independent study so they come in once a week... so most of their work is done at home. That can leave them with time to get in trouble."