This hasn’t gotten much notice, but a “listening campaign” in California communities by a major nonprofit led to a swift – in legislative terms – enactment of five new California laws to reduce high schools suspension and expulsion rates. The long-term result is fewer incarcerations and healthier lives.
“None of us had that on our radars,” said Daniel Zingale, who headed the campaign. “I’d never heard about it being an issue.”
Zingale, a policy expert with deep roots in Sacramento, now works for the California Endowment on the nonprofit’s statewide team. In September 2010, Zingale and his staff held community meetings in each of 14 communities selected by the California Endowment to join its new $1 billion, 10-year initiative to put these areas on a far healthier, more hopeful track. Hundred showed up at each meeting.
The state team asked audience members what they would change to improve the prospects for young people. Nine of the communities independently named reversing the high levels of school suspensions and expulsions for youth, particularly blacks and Latinos.
As more and more communities raised the issue, the meeting organizers shook their heads in astonishment.
“It completely came from the ground up, and they were right,” Zingale said. In the following months, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education caught wind of the nascent movement in the Endowment’s communities to reform school discipline. It did its own analysis and found that that California suspends 400,000 kids a year, more than those getting a diploma.
We’re suspending more kids than we’re graduating in a year,’” said Zingale. “Amazing.”
During his or her lifetime, the average high school dropout will cost taxpayers $292,000 in lower tax revenues and incarceration costs, and that doesn’t include health care costs.
Zingale began educating lawmakers about the issue.
In the spring of 2011 seven bills were introduced by several lawmakers that made it harder to suspend or expel students for nonviolent offenses, and to offer more counseling and other supports for kids who are acting up.
To support the bills, youth from the 14-neighborhood initiative circulated a petition, gathering 15,000 signatures to deliver to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.
They also went to Sacramento to testify in support of the bills. Others attended a day-long hearing in Los Angeles.
Russlynn H. Ali, assistant secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, was the keynote speaker at the LA hearing. She told the audience that her office had recently launched an investigation into school discipline practices nationwide.
“Time after time, students for the very same offenses, with the very same offense histories, receive very different punishments,” she said. “It’s both about what we tolerate, and of whom.”
After suspension, students didn’t feel as connected to the school or that there were adults on campus who cared about them. High school provides a critical opportunity to get guidance and support from adults to steer them to a better future.
In September 2012, Gov. Brown signed five of the new laws. These made it harder to suspend or expel students for nonviolent, non-drug related offenses, and pressured schools to provide support services to youth acting up, such as counseling. One also provided a path back to high school for those in the juvenile justice system.
In a victory press release, Dr. Robert Ross, the CEO of the California Endowment, praised the youth who raised the issue and doggedly advocated for it. “You came together. You pushed. You were smart and strategic. And you would not give up,” wrote Ross.
TAKEWAY: This is another powerful example, in addition to several others in this series of blog posts, that portray the stunning results from truly listening to what ordinary people want to improve their lives and health.