Modesto City Schools' intervention centers a 'loophole' for recent suspensions, teacher says

On the surface, Modesto City Schools’ “intervention centers” sound like a great way to help students who are getting into trouble.

On the surface, Modesto City Schools' "intervention centers" sound like a great way to help students who are getting into trouble. (May 31, 2017)

On the surface, Modesto City Schools’ “intervention centers” sound like a great way to help students who are getting into trouble.

The district describes these centers – located in each high school – as a place where students have access to counseling, reflective writing exercises and other practices designed to resolve issues fairly.

The American Civil Liberties Union called out the district in a 2007 report for its high suspension rates and discipline that disproportionately fell upon black students. Visits to the intervention center were intended to replace in-school suspensions.

As the suspension numbers for Modesto City Schools dropped, however, an ABC10 News investigation revealed that black students are still disproportionately being sent to the intervention centers – discipline that results in these students missing out on academic class time.

A “miscommunication”

In the fall of 2016, Beyer High School sophomore Cedric Wright got in trouble for slapping another student he called his “best friend.” According to Wright, his friend punched a girl in the arm, and after he attempted to intervene, Wright said he slapped his friend.

Both students were sent to the assistant principal’s office but only Wright initially got in trouble.

“He said I would get an in-school suspension,” Wright said, referring to the assistant principal. He was sent to the intervention center, where he said he “just sat there.”

Wright’s parents filed a complaint with the school asking why their son had received a two-day suspension when his friend had not received an equal punishment for a similar offense.

“I could see bias being applied against my son [because he’s black],” James Wright said.

The friend, a white student, did not receive any additional punishment until after Wright’s parents raised their concerns.

In an early letter responding to the Wrights, the school’s principal also referred to the punishment as an “in-school suspension.” But as Cedric’s parents continued to push for an investigation into the incident, the school said there was a “miscommunication” because it “recently revised its conduct code.”

“Student consequences no longer include in-school suspensions,” the letter showed. “The school administered the appropriate consequence but used outdated terminology.”

Given that Wright described himself as having “just sat there,” in the intervention center, the school’s response led to a bigger question: What was going on in the district’s intervention centers?

The school later admitted it violated the terms of its own conduct code in issuing a two-day intervention, calling the “decision for a two-day removal from class inappropriate.” 

School officials added that they “did not follow the spirit of the district initiative to keep students in class through interventions.”

But while the school admitted fault and cleared Wright’s disciplinary record, it denied his father’s claim of discrimination, maintaining the code was applied equally to students, regardless of their ethnicity.

Breaking down the data

Unlike suspensions, data on visits to the intervention center aren’t sent to the state. The district, however, does track them.

In a review of the data obtained by ABC10 News through a public records request, the numbers show the district had a decrease in suspensions once intervention centers opened. At the same time, however, trips to the invention center shot up dramatically.

ABC10 News looked at the data for “willful defiance” offenses, a term deemed problematic by the state in the past because of its vague nature. (It’s a bit of a catch-all that can refer to a wide variety of behaviors.)

In the 2010-11 school year, there were 1,026 suspensions. The year the intervention center opened, in 2013, the number dropped to 346 suspensions.

But between 2013 and 2016, the number of intervention center visits for willful defiance grew dramatically, from 5,170 visits in 2013-2014 to 9,663 visits just two years later.

And the total days spent out classroom for this offense grew. In 2010-2011, students spent more than 2,438 total days in suspension for willful defiance. Five years later, students spent 3,050 days in the intervention center.

Davis High School assistant principal Gretchen Griffin oversees the intervention center at that school. While she wasn’t working in the district when the intervention center first opened, she was made available by the district to discuss issues related to the intervention center.

“I think it’s a shift in thinking, ‘OK, the intervention has support’,” Griffin said. “So if I sent the student, they’re going to get support … so that they’re successful.”

In an email, Modesto City Schools’ Public Information Officer Becky Fortuna responded to questions regarding the increase in intervention center visits.

“As we worked to improve our intervention procedures, we stressed with our staff the importance of entering data correctly and recording every behavior incident. Accurately entering incidents into our system helps us to appropriately assess our students’ needs,” Fortuna wrote. “We will never be ‘comfortable’ with a number regarding discipline. We strive for continuous improvement.”

But according to the data, teachers and administrators seem to feel that some students need more intervention than others.

Despite accounting for about four percent of the district’s enrollment, black students represented seven to eight percent of its intervention center visits from 2013 to 2016.

The exact opposite pattern is seen when looking at the district’s white students.

Over the same time period, 28 to 29 percent of the district’s students are white. However, in 2013-2014, white students made up 17 percent of the interventions; in 2014-15 made up 22 percent of interventions; and in 2015-16, made up 18 percent of interventions.

Latino students made 51 percent of the school’s enrollment in 2013-14; 52 percent in 2014-15; and 54 percent in 2015-16. In the intervention center, Latino students accounted for 61 percent of intervention center visits in 2013-14; 58 percent of visits in 2014-15; and 63 percent of visits in 2015-16.

The switch to intervention centers

Modesto City Schools is not the only district in the state that was found to have high suspension and expulsion rates, nor is it the only district in which discipline has been found to disproportionately affect black students.

The California Department of Education made it a statewide effort to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Fix School Discipline, a website promoted by California’s Department of Education, features a perhaps-surprising statistic: “Currently, California schools issue more suspensions than diplomas each year.”

What is even more worrisome? The site says that “there is no research base to support frequent suspension or expulsion,” adding that these types of discipline are associated with negative outcomes for students.

The reality is that teens will misbehave. But the state department of education says there are better alternatives to suspension.

“Positive behavior interventions and supports” teach students proper behavior and reward them when they act accordingly. Meanwhile, “restorative justice practices” bring misbehaving students together with those whom they may have hurt. The goal is to repair relationships and help students take responsibility for their actions.

These are the practices that Fortuna described when discussing the intervention centers.

But the different accounts from Wright and other students led to further questions.

“For me, I did my homework, but most students probably don’t do that,” Downey High School student Jamaire Limbrick said. “They sit around and think or whatever.”

A Modesto City Schools teacher, who worked in the intervention center up until this school year, agreed to talk with ABC10 News under the condition of anonymity. He said his role in the intervention center was to help students if they needed assistance with schoolwork, but the center was mainly run by the monitor.

“The only behavioral intervention I saw was allowing kids to use their headphones and watch videos in the intervention center,” the teacher said.

He said he had received no training on how to use positive behavior intervention strategies in the intervention center, and he never saw or heard of students coming to the intervention center and then taking part in restorative justice practices.

“I just see it as a loophole,” he said. “They found a way to make their numbers look good.”

The impact of suspensions

Research published in March shows that discipline that removes children from the classroom has long-term negative effects.

A study from researchers at Universities of California, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara found that 10th graders in the state who were suspended had a 60 percent graduation rate, compared to 83 percent for students who had not been suspended.

Controlling for other common factors that predict whether students will drop out, the study found that suspensions led to graduation rates falling by 6.5 percent.

The study did not account for alternative but similar disciplines like intervention center visits. But Osher said the very act of being pulled out of the regular classroom would have a negative effect on students, even if they were to receive some academic instruction.

“When you’re not in class, you’re not a part of all the things that help you develop as a learner, and you can’t replicate that in another space,” Osher said.

Questions about disproportionality in discipline led to questions about academic performance. ABC10 News found a significant gap in academic achievement between black and white students at Modesto City Schools.

Data from California state assessments for 11th grade students found that 64 percent of black students didn’t meet state standards in English, compared to 33 percent of white students. In math, 93 percent of black students failed to meet standards, compared to 64 percent of white students.

Fortuna wrote in an email that there is “an achievement gap through the state of nation.” She said that the district has a number of strategies and programs in place to close the gap, including a student equity subcommittee and outreach initiatives to African-American parents.

Responding to disproportionate discipline

In an effort to combat disproportionality, Modesto City Schools says it has invested in training and will continue to in the future. This includes educating teachers and administrators on the concept of “implicit bias” – the idea that subconscious stereotypes and ideas can lead to biases in judgment that people are not aware of.

Educational researcher David Osher, of the American Institutes for Research, says no one is immune to implicit bias.

“If you combine being self-aware and culturally competent, then you become more of aware [of the fact that you] have biases,” Osher said. “I live in this society, there’s no way I can’t have biases.”

When Griffin was asked about implicit bias, though, she said she didn’t feel it was a problem in the school.

“I only work here, and I don’t see it here,” she said. “I look at every student as an individual.”

Drilling down into data from Griffin’s school site, however, the same trend existed: Looking at the complete years of data available, black students made up a smaller percentage of the student population and a greater percentage of the intervention center visits.

Osher says implicit bias can affect decisions when people are under stress. In the case of teachers, it could affect decisions regarding who gets disciplined – and who doesn’t.

Access to accurate data, meanwhile, can help highlight issues with disproportionality. Osher said the state should be receiving data on any discipline that removes students from the academic classroom.

“I think if there are disparities in who is being removed, it’s important for the state to know from an accountability perspective but also from a technical assistance perspective,” he said. “What’s the problem, how can we do a better job?”

California Department of Education spokesperson Cynthia Foster says there are no plans for the agency to start tracking intervention center visits, writing in an email, “We are only tracking in-school suspensions in CALPADS. Any other data is at the district level.”


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