A newly released report from the Santa Barbara school district shows suspensions and expulsions taking a dramatic drop in the high schools last year, but a sharp rise in the middle schools.
While some officials believe the changes reflect little more than a statistical aberration, others disagree, pointing to trends that have been occurring in both spheres. The local high schools, for instance, last year began offering more interventions to troubled kids before kicking them out of school, such as mandatory anger-management counseling. At the junior-high level, more students seem to be getting involved with gangs or aggressive behavior, school and police officials say.
In 2006-07, the three high schools — Santa Barbara, San Marcos and Dos Pueblos — issued a total of 988 suspensions, down from 1,512 the year before. The number of students whom were recommended for expulsion also fell significantly, from 76 to 55.
Meanwhile, in 2006-07, the four junior high schools — Santa Barbara, La Cumbre, La Colina and Goleta Valley — meted out a total of 951 suspensions, up from 659 the year before. The most recent number is particularly striking in light of how it rivals the high school figure, even though the high schools enroll about twice as many students.
As for recommended expulsions in the junior high schools, the number has nearly doubled in two years, from 18 to 35.
In general, students can be suspended for being tardy or truant, or for behavioral offenses, such as fighting, using or possessing drugs or alcohol, threatening to harm a pupil or bringing a fake gun to school. They can be expelled for their second drug offense or third fighting infraction, or for threatening to kill someone, brandishing a weapon or committing a sexual assault.
Students are generally recommended for expulsion by a principal, and expelled by a panel of administrators. Ultimately, the expulsions are approved or denied by the elected Santa Barbara school board. Last year, of the 91 recommended expulsions, 20 cases were dropped, often because the behavior is determined to be a symptom of a learning disability, according to the report. Seven cases are still pending.
The most common reason for expelling students last school year had to do with drugs and alcohol, followed by weapons and then fighting.
At Goleta Valley Junior High, Principal Veronica Rogers said the school set a record for the number of students recommended for expulsion last year: 14. (One of those cases was dropped.)
“The younger kids are truly becoming more aggressive,” she said. “Even the older gang members are saying it’s the young kids who are not respectful.”
She added that her school has significantly more “wannabes” than actual gang members.
“The kids who engage in that kind of behavior — they stand out, and we’re all over it,” she said.
Police Lt. Paul McCaffrey said he isn’t surprised by the junior high trend, pointing out that Ricardo Juarez, the 14-year-old boy being charged as an adult in connection with the March slaying of 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares, was a junior high student at the time of the incident.
“We’ve seen kids who are very defiant with the officers. Very mouthy,” he said.
Many of these students, he said, know relatives who have spent time behind bars.
“For them that is more normal,” he said. “When so-and-so gets out, they have stories about how it’s not so bad. … That’s a big influence.”
At La Cumbre Junior High — where the number of expulsions rose from zero in 2005-06 to three last year — Principal Jo Ann Caines chalks up the increase more to randomness.
“You can’t predict,” said. “You can educate, which we do starting on the first day of school, but this age group, sometimes they make poor choices.”
She added that the ones who make the worst choices tend to be in seventh grade.
By way of example, she said she dealt with nine seventh-graders last week who “pantsed” — or yanked down the shorts of — some other students in P.E. class.
“They just aren’t thinking — they’re not teenagers yet,” she said. “They still sort of have that childish mentality. You would never find kids in high school pantsing each other. And truthfully, eighth-graders wouldn’t do it either.”
All nine students, she added, will get Saturday school.
But even if it’s true that younger kids are more prone to immature pranks, a careful reading of the report indicates that they are also capable of committing some of the most disturbing school-ground offenses.
For instance, one La Cumbre student was expelled for threatening the life of a teacher’s aide, according to the report. Another was ejected from Santa Barbara Junior High for saying he was going to “murder” a teacher. At Goleta Valley Junior High, two students were expelled for starting fires inside city buses.
School board President Nancy Harter said it should be noted that no gang-related crimes have occurred on local campuses.
“Maybe there’s a correlation between higher numbers of suspensions — tougher messages being sent to the students — and the lack of gang incidents on the campuses,” she said. “I do think that our schools are pretty safe places for kids.”
At the high school level, an influx of counselors has helped, said Paul Turnbull, who last year was the principal of Santa Barbara High School but now is an assistant superintendent at the district office.
“We realized that suspensions don’t always work,” he said. “If you have a punishment it should be a deterrent. If the numbers go up, it means the deterrents aren’t working.”
Now, when students are sent to the assistant principal’s office, instead of automatically putting them on the path to suspension, the administrators may hook them up with a counselor on campus — or off.
“We don’t ever want counselors to have a punitive relationship with the students,” Turnbull said. “We want them to be seen as advocates.”