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October 5, 2013
Editorial: Schools set too many troubled kids adrift

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(Oct. 5 -- By the Editorial Board)

Leaving a troubled 13-year-old boy alone at home to teach himself is not a formula for educational success.

Yet that is what happened to Erick Araujo, age 13, in the Kern County town of Lost Hills. As reported by Susan Ferriss of the Center for Public Integrity, Araujo was expelled for a year.

His offense? He had a knife in his backpack and had previously been punished for talking in class and for getting into a fight with a kid who pushed him at a water fountain. He was told to enroll in an alternative school 38 miles away. His mother, a farmworker, couldn't drive him, so Araujo ended up in "independent study" at home, meeting with a teacher only once a week.

And Araujo, of course, is not alone. More than 250,000 California public school students missed 18 days or more of school last year. About 1million elementary school students were truant (absent or late three or more days without an excuse). More than 700,000 were suspended from school. More than 18,000 were expelled.

California has too many kids who are truant, suspended or expelled - and then are relegated to a largely hidden world of alternative schools or independent study. When kids fall between the cracks like this, as Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, has said, it affects safety in our community and productivity in our society.

One-size-fits-all "zero-tolerance" school discipline policies are part of the problem. Poking another student with a pen can be treated the same as carrying a gun. Talking back to a teacher, missing school, not doing homework or getting into a playground fight can get kids suspended or expelled.

Then a cycle of disconnection begins. A kid skips school for a couple of days, is suspended for disrupting the class, gets behind in his studies, acts out. You get the idea.

Dave Gordon, superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education, believes the way to break the cycle is to put the onus on school principals and staff to head off absences and to work with families, through phone calls and visits - to find out why kids are missing school or acting out and focus on helping them, rather than setting them adrift.

And the state should require schools to collect and publicly report on what happens to kids who have been suspended or expelled - whether they return to their regular school, end up in an alternative school, do independent study or drop out of school. Without that data, no one is responsible for these kids, and no one is held accountable.

Dickinson has been working on legislation to fix harsh one-size-fits-all discipline policies. Assembly Bill 420 failed this year, but Dickinson promises to be back with a revised bill in January.

The stakes are high. A 2011 study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center found that students who are suspended or expelled are five times more likely to drop out, six times more likely to repeat a grade and three times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year than similar students who were not suspended or expelled.

California has to reverse the tide of "throwaway kids." Kids like Erick Araujo need a structured program and caring adults, not "self-study."

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