Kern students' high expulsion numbers in the spotlight

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - After a scathing report on the high number of students expelled in Kern County, a search is on for answers and solutions. State Senator Michael Rubio (D-Bakersfield) called for a roundtable forum, and local educators turned out with plenty of feedback.

Kern school officials say the numbers look worse than what's really happening. Superintendents and administrators from various districts were at the Friday afternoon session, as well as representatives from teacher groups and some school board members.

The data Rubio is looking into comes from the "Center for Public Integrity." Their report says the figures are analyzed from information submitted to the California Department of Education. It points to Kern County as an area with very high numbers of students expelled.

"Because of its no-nonsense approach, Kern ended up with an expulsion rate of nearly 15 students for every 1,000 pupils last year, according to an iWatch News analysis of California's discipline data for 2010-2011," their report said.

Their study includes a table of data showing Kern County had a total student enrollment of 173,365 students in that year. It shows that 2,578 were expelled, and states that's a rate of 14.9 per 1,000 students.

The report lists Los Angeles with some 1.5 million students. They say there were 1,773 expulsions in that county, for a rate of 1.1.

"Am I reading that correctly? Are they reporting it correctly?" Rubio asked the forum.

One local official said he questioned the report's findings about student expulsions in San Francisco, for example. He took the time to look into that himself. How could their rate be less than one per thousand?

He was told San Francisco schools send misbehaving students to an alternate school within their own district, so that isn't counted as an expulsion.

However, in Kern County when a student is expelled and sent to a community school operated by the Kern Superintendent of Schools office -- that would end up in the expulsion column. It's an example local educators point to where Kern's numbers end up looking higher.

Other local administrators ticked off situations where Kern schools are counting a expulsion, but other areas might not. They listed circumstances where a student is transferred to another school within the same district, or multiple expulsions in one year of the same student, or an expulsion that is never enacted.

Kern educators say if those cases are listed as "expulsions," the local numbers will look higher. However, in those situations the students are being "transferred," but they're in the education process.

"We don't give up on these students," Kern High School District Superintendent Don Carter said. He said some student behavior may require a "time out," and kids may need to be removed from the regular classrooms to allow other students the best education opportunities.

The goal is to get troubled students back on track and to graduation.

Rubio also asked why local students are expelled. The new report suggests many students are expelled for defying authority or using obscenities.

"I fully support schools taking swift action against students that bring weapons to school or endanger the lives of those on campus, but expulsions must always be a tool of last resort," Rubio said in a statement.

Eyewitness News asked about circumstances for local expulsions. "Eighty-three percent of expulsions in Kern county are due to drugs or violence," Jeanne Hughes said. She's the administrator for student services with the Kern Superintendent of Schools Office. Hughes said those are expelled students who end up in the programs her office operates.

Hughes had also checked the most recent data from the California Department of Education. "Our expulsion rate in Kern County is actually moving in the right direction, which means it's going down by quite a bit," Hughes said. "Almost 16- , 17 percent."

The report from the Center for Public Integrity has data for all 58 California counties. The others they also show with high rates include Mariposa county with 13.2 expulsions per 1,000 students, Kings County with 10.8, and Yuba County with 15.7. Again, they list Kern with a rate of 14.9

Rubio was also looking for solutions. He heard about special teams local schools use to work with troubled students. Districts say those are proving effective. Superintendent Carter said schools try many strategies to work with misbehaving students, from Saturday sessions to parent conferences.

Rubio said he wants to be sure he's comparing "apples to apples," and understands the numbers. But, he's made the issue of expulsions a prime goal.

"This is a subject I've decided that I'm going to sink my teeth in, learn, try to understand to the best of my ability and work on for the next six years," Rubio told the group -- saying that's how long he could be in Sacramento.

"I think this is a particular area where we can constantly strive to do better."