Goodbye, suspension. Hello, detention.
Pressed by law enforcement, civil-rights advocates and the realization that the way they disciplined students was failing, schools are keeping on campus more kids who talk back, throw tantrums or even threaten teachers.
From Los Angeles to Modesto to the Bay Area, districts are reducing suspensions, sometimes dramatically, and drawing raves and national attention -- but also bitter criticism.
Five years ago, Yerba Buena High in East San Jose lost 1,062 days to suspension. Last school year, with both the number of suspensions and their duration plummeting, that number was a mere 23 days.
Also in 2012-13, Oakland Unified cut suspensions nearly in half. In the same year, the Jefferson Union High District in Daly City -- which in 2009-10 posted the state's second-highest suspension rate for black students -- reduced its rate from 2011-12 by 34 percent, mainly by changing how it responded to student defiance.
"Suspending students is not effective," said Yerba Buena Principal Tom Huynh.
But teachers at schools elsewhere say taking away the option to suspend creates a disciplinary void and sticks them with rowdy or even dangerous kids in class.
"For an experienced teacher who knows how to deal with intense behavioral management -- we get that," said one Oakland Unified teacher who didn't want to be identified for fear of reprisal. "But for a new teacher, it's a disaster."
Even worse, Oakland teachers allege, the pressure not to suspend has led schools to fudge their numbers by not documenting fights or even weapons violations, or the ensuing punishments.
Per state law, schools are required to expel students for serious offenses such as bringing a gun, brandishing a knife or selling drugs on campus. The criteria for suspension are broader and more discretionary.
Once, if a student swore at a teacher, refused to put away a cell phone or was habitually tardy or disruptive, "our first instinct used to be to suspend," said Shannon Lane, student adviser at Oak Grove High in San Jose. Now, she and other administrators talk it over with students and hand out in-school punishment. Suspension days fell by 40 percent from 2011-12.
In addition to the federal and state push, the Santa Clara County Probation Department, joined by other law enforcement, educators and community groups, is leading an initiative on alternative discipline.
When schools kick out students, they're not learning the consequences of their behavior, said Annie Nguyen, a former East Side district counselor. "They go home and chill out for a week."
Then, "you can't ask the teacher how to catch up," said Esperanza Lopez, a freshman at Independence High in San Jose. Students falling behind often lose their connection with school -- and frequently drop out.
San Jose's chapter of the advocacy group Californians for Justice is urging East Side district schools to reduce punitive and discriminatory discipline, which they said creates a school-to-prison pipeline.
Yerba Buena is already in the forefront of change. In hiring, Principal Huynh's top priority is teachers who can form positive relationships with students.
Coming from poverty and volatile streets, at a time when San Jose is on track to set another annual record of homicides, students arrive on campus with all kinds of baggage. Huynh insists it's the adults' duty to understand who students are. "If they're acting strangely, staff let us know right away."
In turn, he alerts staff about real or potential trouble. If two boys get into a fight over a girlfriend, for instance, the school sends an in-house e-mail so that adults can keep an eye out for any fallout.
Yerba Buena has transformed detention from seat-warming to an interactive lesson. At a recent session, student adviser Elizabeth Dinh held the attention of two dozen students as she wove her own childhood experiences with being put down, feeling angry and rebelling into a talk on combating bullying.
"It's not just a waste of time. It's useful," sophomore Cesar Baltazar, attending because he had been tardy to a class, said about the session.
Classmate Esther Simmons agreed. She didn't expect to hear an experience she could relate to, she said. "I thought I was the only one."
Like other schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods, Oak Grove has created discipline alternatives and also stitched together a safety net of services. A referral to student adviser Lane may draw detention, Saturday school or litter patrol, as well as a connection to a counselor, anger-management help or a substance abuse support group. Or it might just be a talking-to by Lane.
Oakland Unified, compelled to reduce suspensions as part of a settlement with the federal Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, promotes a practice called restorative justice. It tries to get scofflaws to make amends, combatants to reconcile and students to come to terms with any harm they've done.
The district has enhanced conflict resolution and support for African-American boys. But some teachers say stretched schools lack resources and time to devote to the worthy but time-intensive practice. Instead, troubled students stay in class unless they commit serious or multiple infractions.
"All of this is done to try to put a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. It leaves a lot of kids feeling unsafe," one teacher said.
Others said an unwritten rule is that if a student brings a BB gun -- which doesn't count as a real weapon -- or less than an ounce of marijuana on campus, expulsion is not an option.
"Rigor and clear boundaries are the No. 1 thing students need and desire from us," one Oakland teacher said. "When the system is so broken those boundaries fluctuate from classroom up to the district, the message gets sent loud and clear to students: 'You can misbehave and (you'll) still be here because we don't have the power to do anything about it.'"
The state Education Code still gives a teacher the right to kick out a student from class for various transgressions.
That's sometimes necessary, teachers say. "When a student screams at you at the top of their lungs, you're not allowed to cuss back at them," said Jenny Ludwig, who teaches independent study at Oak Grove and also has taught at other East Side schools. "You have to show the rest of the students where the red line is. You need a day to cool off so you can be professional."
Huynh at Yerba Buena said administrators help beleaguered teachers and intervene in tough cases.
But kicking out kids, he said, should be on its way out as a form of school discipline. "We don't paddle students," he said, noting states have outlawed corporal punishment. "When you take it off the table, it's just not an option any more."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.