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Behavior in high schools declines amid changes in society, discipline policies

KBAK/KBFX file photo

State reports obtained by Eyewitness News indicate that behavior in Kern's high schools is trending in the wrong direction. Acts of violence leapt more than 50 percent last year from two years ago.

The number of students disciplined for defiance or disruptive behavior rose more than 10 percent over the same period. Reports for the current school year will not be available until the fall.

The behavior changes come at a time of significant change in society, as well as discipline policy.

Some changes were initiated by Sacramento, others by local leaders.

CHANGES AT HOME

"Things have changed dramatically since when I started 16 years ago," said Katie Price, a counselor at Bakersfield High School. "The parents aren't parenting."

Many children in school today lack two involved parents.

About 35 percent of Kern County children live in a single-parent household, according to the Kern County Network for Children.

Many parents are stressed, Price said, noting economic downturns and widespread alcohol and substance abuse problems. Those issues trickle down to the kids.

"The kids have baggage, and it's not their fault in most cases," she said.

To that end, policymakers in Sacramento have made changes to the way schools can and cannot discipline kids who are disrupting the learning environment.

CHANGES IN POLICY

The first significant change to school discipline policy originated in the state legislature in the form of Assembly Bill 420.

"It no longer allowed us at the high school level to expel students for willful defiance," said Dr. Brenda Lewis, associate superintendent at the Kern High School District.

The law also made suspension a punishment of last resort. It has its share of critics inside the schools who feel their hands have been tied.

"Just the other day, one of the kids in the class stood up, flipped a desk over, said a profanity and walked out," Price said. "You can't do anything about that. No one was hurt."

But the Dolores Huerta Foundation applauded the state's move. Education Director Gerald Cantu said he understands the frustration but advocates for a more nuanced approach.

"There's no point in being nostalgic here," he said. "We are in the society we are in."

The foundation sued the district in 2014, claiming Kern's soaring suspension and expulsion rates unfairly targeted African-American and Latino students.

"When you remove a student from the learning environment, they are likely going to not graduate from high school, which is going to have economic costs,” he said. "There's also going to be more of a likelihood that they'll enter the criminal justice system."

AB 420 wasn't the only policy change. Four years ago, district officials began a slow rollout of a program known as Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports. Contrary to what the district believes is a widespread belief, PBIS has nothing to do with the suspension and expulsion policy.

"It's ways to reward students for positive behavior," Price said. "Rather than everything being punitive, when you see a kid who's doing a good job, let's reward them. And it doesn't have to be the kid who's getting straight A’s or the star quarterback of the football team. It could just be the nice kid."

Schools are still allowed to suspend or expel students who are violent or who bring drugs to campus. PBIS doesn't change that.

Despite all the money and attention it received, the legal settlement about the discipline policy didn't change much. It stepped up the training schedule for PBIS and the scale of the district's commitment to the program.

The rollout isn't complete, but Price sees some changes beginning to take hold at BHS, which served as a test site for PBIS before it arrived at other campuses.

"I do see students opening the door more often for me, calling me ma'am, (saying) thank you, please," she said.

MEASURING SUCCESS

In addition to discipline reports compiled annually to see behavior trends, schools use campus climate surveys filled out by students several times a year.

There was not much change in the survey results across the district from last year to the current school year, but the changes that were observed generally weren't good.

They found 14 percent of students reported feeling unsafe at school, up from 12 percent last school year.

There were nominal increases in the number of students who reported being verbally or sexually harassed and slight increases in those who reported feeling isolated on campus. They found 22 percent of students report tangible racial tension at school.

The number of students who reported being bullied on the internet didn't change this year.

Slightly more students this year reported they think other students care about them.

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