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SMMUSD HDQRTRS — Last school year, district officials got a call from one of their principals: One of her students had started a fire.

She’d have to suspend the student, right?

Not anymore.

Instead, said Mark Kelly, Executive Director of Student and Professional Services, they talked about alternatives. They decided that the elementary school student would take a trip, on the weekend, to the fire station.

“Have him have a conversation with the people there,” Kelly said. “What are the dangers in our area — we’re in high fire zones — of even just playing with matches and lighting fires? The principal reported it was a big success.”

It is examples like this, Kelly recently told the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education, that led to substantial drops in suspensions last school year.

From 2012-13 to 2013-14, suspensions were cut in half, from 401 to 189.

“It’s a considerable and substantial drop,” Kelly said.

There were more than three times as many suspensions in 2011-12, when the total was 648.

These drops are a result of the district’s new approaches to discipline but also changes at the state level, which have made it harder to suspend students for first-time offenses.

The top reason for suspension last school year was because the student “caused or attempted to cause or threaten to cause physical injury.” In 61 cases, this was the grounds for suspension.

There were 51 suspensions that involved willful defiance or a disruption of school activities, although in 24 of those cases, there was also another offense that led to the suspension.

This issue of willful defiance, Kelly said, is frequently discussed in the education community. Some districts have banned suspensions that are based on this offense.

Kelly told the board that he personally finds the idea of an all-out ban to be too restrictive, citing safety concerns that could arise if a student defies his or her teacher.

On Jan. 1, a new state law will go into effect that will prohibit the district from suspended students in kindergarten through third grade for willful defiance or disruption of school activities.

Last school year, only one student within that grade group was suspended for this offense.

Kelly lauded site administrators for spending more time thinking about discipline.

“They’ve been working very hard to think about this and to accept changes in the Ed Code and make the adaptations,” Kelly said. “They do continue to be thoughtful.”

All of the administrators are looking at alternatives to old forms of discipline, he said, using instead mediation or referral to counseling services or special education.

One of the greatest challenges, he said, is breaking the old mold.

“We all have kind of lived in this idea of punishment: We must have a consequence. We must have punishment,” Kelly said. “Shifting that is really hard. Everyone has that thought.”

He asked house principals and assistant principals about the decline in suspensions: Do the school communities feel less safe?

“The assistant principals we’re like, ‘No. It feels good,'” Kelly said. “The house principals were like ‘No, but I still think sometimes a kid should have been suspended.’ Again, that suspension is really a part of the culture. It’s institutionalized. It’s deep.”

African American and Latino students are still being suspended at a higher rate than White and Asian students, Kelly said. While the suspension rate dropped across all demographics, proportionality of suspension actually got worse for Latino students last year. Nearly 40 percent of the district’s suspensions were of Latino students, who only make up 30 percent of the district.

Boardmember Oscar de la Torre suggested that taking a closer look at the discipline of boys, who were suspended at a much higher rate than girls, could also help smooth out some of this imbalance.

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