A Superintendent's Crusade for Reducing a Big City's Suspensions
|John Deasy (left), superintendent in Stockton, Calif., greeted students on his first day in office, which was the final day of the 2017-18 school year.
When John Deasy learned that 49,000 students were suspended each year in the Los Angeles Unified School District, he was startled and alarmed. It was 2011, and he had just become superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school system.
Deasy came ready to pursue education reforms on a large scale. He added discipline reform to the list.
LAUSD enrolls more than 640,000 students in grades K-12. Nearly 75 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent are African American and 10 percent are white. Like many districts, it enforced a zero-tolerance policy toward student misbehavior.
The quest for answers on the scope and shape of the problem required an intensive review of data.
“We literally looked at every single suspension,” says Deasy, who spent three years as LA’s superintendent and now leads the Stockton, Calif., Unified School District. “We learned less than 3 percent of suspensions were for weapons, assault and drugs.”
What he also found was that 93 percent of suspensions were for incidents not considered significant enough to automatically warrant such severe discipline. Of those most were for “willful defiance” — a vaguely defined description for anything from failing to open a textbook in class to talking back to the teacher.
Data showed young men of color had suspension rates that were dramatically disproportional, and Deasy acted swiftly to end systemic practices that put these students in the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I do not apologize for my principles, and I am not confused about my mission: We lift youth out of poverty,” Deasy said. “I felt compelled to act on behalf of those voiceless children. Thousands of students were losing between 10-15 days or more in a year for suspension,” which increased their chances of dropping out of school.
Initially, the objective of the superintendent’s disciplinary reforms was to clarify for teachers what they could no longer do when it came to punishing misbehavior by students. Training of teachers and administrators reduced suspension rates in many schools, but the speed of change created a backlash from some teachers and parents who felt schools became more unsafe once less-punitive practices, such as restorative justice, were implemented.
Similar criticism surfaced in the aftermath of the 17 deaths in a mass shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Fla. But Deasy sees no connection between discipline alternatives and school shootings.
“Do you want to punish kids, or do you want consequences for young people?” he says. “School is about training and supporting students and having consequences. I’m not suggesting the healthy approach is to abandon all approaches to consequences for misbehavior.”
He adds: “Young people who are hungry and witness violence, catastrophic drug use, fear of deportation — these things all come to our front door. These children require support.”
During his tenure, which ended in fall 2013, the suspension rate dropped from 5.4 percent in 2010-11 to 1.5 percent in 2012-13 with fewer than 6,000 students suspended annually. Deasy says Los Angeles experienced increases in attendance and graduation and a major reduction in dropout rates during his tenure.
“Change is possible, even in large urban districts such as Los Angeles,” Deasy says.
In 2017, after leaving LAUSD Deasy became CEO of The Reset Foundation: New Day, New Year, an alternative correctional program for young men.
— ALAN WECHSLER