Twenty Years of Life: Why the Poor Die Earlier and How to Challenge Inequity

Suzanne Bohan

264 pages, Island Press, 2018

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I spent six years reporting in various cities throughout California on a unique foundation-led strategy for lifting up conditions in low-income communities—that of building up political power among residents and local leaders. The simple and compelling logic behind that approach recognizes that poor communities remain poor when they scarcely, if ever, have a seat at the table when policymakers divvy up public resources, or enact rules that can either harm or benefit a community. So it’s little wonder that people in these neighborhoods live amidst substandard parks, numerous liquor stores, polluting industries, and struggling schools. In addition, to concentrate the heft of local nonprofits serving the community, this endeavor concentrates on cultivating shared goals among them, to maximize results.

This power-building campaign is dubbed “Building Healthy Communities,” and the California Endowment, one of the largest U.S. health foundations, launched it in 2010. The Endowment committed $1 billion over 10 years to the endeavor, concentrating their efforts in 14 distressed communities.

The outcome has been remarkable, and it’s one of the largest examples underway of the power of “collective impact.” That is, community groups working together with a shared vision, and agreeing to shared measuring tools, to achieve the greatest impact. It’s also created an army of engaged residents, youth and adults, trained and active in community organizing.

The California Endowment leadership intended to wind down the campaign in 2020, but it’s working so well they now plan to continue it past that date. One extraordinary success was the campaign to reform school discipline policies that were throwing many thousands of kids out of school and severely jeopardizing their future prospects and, as result, their long-term health. It also put them into the “school-to-prison” pipeline, as youth not in school are more likely to end up entangled in the criminal justice system, which proves hard to escape.

This chapter describes that remarkable campaign, led by a potent coalition of nonprofits and outraged students and parents, which led to 11 new state laws to date and a nearly 400,000 decline in student suspensions annually in California. — Suzanne Bohan

Changing Schools’ Rules

Fight Crime: Invest in Kids is a national organization of some five thousand police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, and district attorneys that prides itself on taking “a hard-nosed look at the strategies proven to reduce crime.” At first, it might seem like an odd partner to lead up a new school discipline reform campaign taking root in California in 2011. But excessive suspensions and expulsions aren’t proven strategies for reducing crime; in fact, data showed they go hand in hand with kids dropping out of school and too often ending up in the juvenile justice system. So when the California Endowment brought that data to Brian Lee, the California state director of Fight Crime, he listened.

Lee remembers those early conversations with staff of the California Endowment. “It was not their idea,” Lee said. “It emerged from the grassroots and they were surprised as anybody.” It was also novel for Fight Crime. The organization had long concentrated on reducing crime by lowering high school dropout rates through programs like early childhood education and truancy prevention, but it hadn’t yet made the connection to overly zealous school discipline policies. It was news to him that even a single suspension reduces the odds of a student graduating high school. And not completing high school also lowers lifetime earning potential and increases the risk of chronic health problems. That’s the reason the Endowment—a health foundation—got involved in the issue.

In the spring of 2011, Fight Crime became a key ally in the Endowment’s campaign to reform school disciple policies statewide. It was under the umbrella of the Endowment’s “Building Healthy Communities”, or BHC, initiative—a 10-year effort to build up political power in 14 distressed California communities in order to usher in more health-promoting resources and policies.

The first formal effort in the California campaign took place in May 2011 at the Endowment’s Los Angeles headquarters, with representatives from various community organizations and eight BHC sites assembled, along with Lee from Fight Crime and Endowment staff.

As the meeting progressed, the participants recognized the seeds of a statewide movement. Over the following months, they formed the new “Fix School Discipline Policy Coalition.” Its roster included Fight Crime, CADRE, the Labor Community Strategy Center, or LCSC, the Public Counsel Law Center, and several large nonprofit organizations with statewide and national reach such as the ACLU, the Youth Law Center, and Children Now. Several smaller community-based nonprofits also joined in, which brought years of direct experience with the issue, and which could quickly mobilize grassroots support.

Then someone at the Endowment got the idea to host a “virtual rally” so that young people around the state could share their experiences with school disciplines via a webcast. They held it on October 5, 2011, and young people statewide tuned in, many assembling in Endowment offices around the state.

The rally ended up transforming the campaign. Young people around the state now understood that they were far from alone. A number of media outlets covered it as well, providing the first statewide coverage of the toll of excessive school disciplines. “They were able to break away from this just being a local movement to being something larger,” said Manuel Criollo, with LCSC, one of the organizations in the coalition.

The online rally included memorable testimony from a young Hispanic woman in Southern California, posted on YouTube. “My name is Claudia Gomez,” said the dark-haired woman, speaking emphatically at a podium. “When I entered high school I began to witness and experience the school-to-jailhouse track. I began to get truancy tickets for being just a couple of minutes late. I got into a fistfight with a girl and I was automatically suspended instead of being offered anger management classes. I went back a couple of months later and got into a fight with the same girl and was expelled for disturbing the peace and using verbal threats.”

Gomez said that no school in the district would take her, so she made long trips on city buses from South LA to a school in an unfamiliar neighborhood. She was often late and dealt with “hood politics”— hostility from other students because she wasn’t from the area. “I was eventually kicked out of there for having so many tardies and encounters with other students,” she said.

“By the middle of my sophomore year I didn’t have a school to go to and I had given up,” Gomez continued. “I just didn’t want to go to school, even though I really, deeply loved to learn. I was a valedictorian of my eighth-grade class but had a lot of dreams that were taken away. My schools never even knew that my older sister had been murdered by her boyfriend and my other sister shot by him, right in front of me when I was only twelve. I was dealing with all of that pain by myself. And all the time I was struggling with anger management and transportation issues and no one ever asked me what they could do to help.” She eventually enrolled in the LA Unified School District’s only independent study program. “I’m very proud to say I graduated in 2008,” she said to applause and cheers.

The new Fix School Discipline Policy Coalition convened in December 2011 and—in a remarkably fast pace—drafted ten proposed statewide school discipline reform laws that month. By February 2012, various lawmakers had agreed to sponsor and introduce the bills, which addressed issues ranging from charter school discipline policies to improving state data collection, and restricting disciplines for willful defiance.

Now advocates needed to start changing minds and hearts. Lee, with Fight Crime, started by recruiting prominent sheriffs, police chiefs, district attorneys, and others to make the case for reducing suspension rates as a dropout- and crime-prevention strategy. One police chief told legislators, “Kids who aren’t in school are instead likely to be getting ‘schooled’ out on the streets, with the wrong crowd.” They cited research demonstrating “that by increasing graduation rates by 10 percentage points we could prevent 400 murders and over 20,000 aggravated assaults in California each year” (and 3,400 murders and 170,000 aggravated assaults in the United States annually). Lawmakers didn’t expect calls to reform school discipline policies from the “tough on crime” crowd, and they had a powerful influence.

In a fortunate coincidence, researchers at the Civil Rights Project, at the University of California, Los Angeles, were also poring over school discipline rates around the country, which the US Department of Education had released a few weeks earlier, and they were drilling down on California statistics.

Typically the group’s reports take several months to prepare, but bolstered by an Endowment grant to add solid data to the campaign, the UCLA researchers finished it six weeks later, in April 2012. “We worked day and night. It was crazy,” recalled Tia Martinez, an attorney and one of the Civil Rights Project’s researchers.

The UCLA report, called “Suspended Education in California,” didn’t disappoint. It revealed previously unreported aspects of school discipline practices in the Golden State, including one statistic that shocked everyone: in the 2011 school year, California had suspended more than 400,000 students compared with giving high school diplomas to 382,500. “The sound bite from me being that ‘We are suspending more kids than we’re graduating in a year.’ Amazing,” said Daniel Zingale, the head of the BHC statewide team, who works from its Sacramento office in an historic brick building across the street from the state capitol.

The UCLA report also detailed how “nearly 1 out of every 5 African American students, 1 in 9 American Indian students, and 1 in 13 Latino students in California were suspended at least once, compared to 1 in 17 white students and 1 in 35 Asian American students.” Ten districts in the state actually suspended 25% of the student body every year. Another troubling statistic was that nearly half of the suspensions issued in California the previous two years had been under “willful defiance,” the subjective, behavioral category that doesn’t involve any crimes.

The Endowment then funded a major ad campaign trumpeting that new statistic—more than 400,000 suspended annually versus 382,500 graduating—in newspaper ads, in TV and radio spots, and on billboards and posters. The Endowment also commissioned a statewide poll on views toward school discipline and found that four out of five people polled supported school discipline reform. Those polling statistics ended up in ad campaigns, including the tagline, “80 percent of Californians want to fix school discipline. Do you?” Another group in the coalition, Children Now, contacted thousands of children’s advocates around the state, urging them to call and write to their representatives in support of the proposed laws.

All this activity led to a new round of media coverage during a critical time in the spring of 2012, when legislative hearings would begin on the proposed bills.

Hundreds of young people in the Building Healthy Communities sites also wrote letters to lawmakers and initiated an online petition, in short order sending 15,000 signatures to the California governor in support of the discipline reform bills. As part of a BHC summer training program, a couple hundred teenagers arrived in Sacramento and visited numerous lawmakers to ask for their support for the proposed laws.

State legislators held numerous hearings on the topic. Young people gave moving, raw testimony, telling of punishments that left them bewildered, hurt, rejected by their schools, and fearful about their futures. The chair of one of the committees, Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Los Angeles, told me, “Many times I looked around and there was not a dry eye on the committee listening to these young folks tell their stories.”

After maintaining a furious pace for months, the coalition members braced themselves for the legislative votes in the summer of 2012, and they rejoiced when their efforts paid off. Of the ten school discipline reform bills, state legislators approved seven. Sacramento veterans couldn’t recall a package of bills being written and passed by both chambers so quickly and then landing on the governor’s desk.

In late September 2012, Brown approved five of the bills, including two that had secured unanimous bipartisan support. It was historic legislation, the first-of-its-kind set of school discipline reform laws in California. The new laws would require districts to consider suspension and expulsion only after trying other ways to correct students’ behavior; to clarify that it’s not mandatory to expel students who bring toy weapons, over-the-counter medicines, or their own prescriptions to school; to encourage schools to leave law enforcement out when addressing truancy; to affirm the right of students to return to school after time in the juvenile justice system; and to require the presence of a social worker or an attorney when foster children face expulsion so that they have an advocate willing to speak up on their behalf.

The coalition members were disappointed that the governor vetoed a bill that would have limited school’s ability to suspend students for “willful defiance or disruption of school activities.” It was the measure that could have most profoundly changed discipline policies, but Brown said he was reluctant to limit the authority of local school leaders.

After the extraordinary success in 2012, the school disciple reform coalition kept pressing for a statewide ban on willful defiance, and in 2014 they made headway when Brown signed a “watered-down” bill restricting willful defiance disciplines, said Lee with Fight Crime. It was still a big victory, considering the governor’s previous veto. And even the modified version made history, as California became the first state in the United States to limit the discretion of teachers and principals for this offense. It prohibited suspensions for defiance in kindergarten through third grade (although it ended expulsions for this offense for all K-12 students), and its backers estimated that it would keep more than ten thousand students in school each year.

In all, since the BHC coalition in 2011 embarked on its campaign, eleven new laws reforming school discipline have taken effect. Since then, K-12 suspensions and expulsions have plunged throughout the state. From the 2011—2012 school year to 2016—2017, suspensions declined by 46 percent, translating into 327,857 fewer suspensions in 2016—2017 compared with five years earlier, according to the California Department of Education. Similarly, expulsions decreased by 42 percent, dropping from about 9,800 to 5,700.

And the BHC school discipline coalition hasn’t given up on banning or further restricting suspensions for willful defiance, although the latest version of a bill addressing that—which would expand the ban to all grades K-12—was still pending in the legislature when this book went to press.

From Twenty Years of Life, by Suzanne Bohan. Copyright © 2018 Suzanne Bohan. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.