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Jump in Willard Suspensions, State Questions Discipline Data

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 09:35:00 AM

According to recent published reports about violence and suspension rates in California public schools, Berkeley’s Willard Middle School reported one of the highest violent-suspension rates in the Bay Area last year. 

Although officials from the California Department of Edu-cation did not dispute the data published in the San Francisco Chronicle this week, they told the Planet the data was based on faulty methodology and unverified data due to a lack of funds. 

Every public school in Califor-nia is required to report student expulsion, suspension and truancy information to the state education department in June to satisfy No Child Left Behind (NCLB) re-quirements. 

“But we know this data is incorrect,” said state education department information officer Tina Jung. “We need better data but that requires adequate funding. We know schools are required to report to the state the raw data, but there are often data entry errors that leads to discrepancy. To go back and check up on this data costs millions of dollars. The state and federal government don’t give us any funds to enforce it.” 

Stephanie Papas of the state’s Safe & Healthy Kids program, which is responsible for violence prevention funds, said suspension data are self-reported. 

“We post the data we receive from the schools on our website,” Papas said. “We have never analyzed the correlation.” 


Spike in suspensions at Willard 

Information from the state department website shows Willard Middle School reported 140 suspensions for violence and drugs in 2005, which dropped to 65 in 2006 and then went up to 256 in 2007, an increase of almost four-fold. 

Jung said it was important to remember that these numbers showed suspensions, not students, and that a single student could have been suspended multiple times. Papas said there were a number of logical explanations behind the spike in suspensions. “Maybe in 2006 they had an administrator who believed in rigorous suspensions,” she said. 

Berkeley Unified Director of Student Services Felton Owens attributed the spike in the number of suspensions at Willard to a shift in the school’s administration. 

The school’s Vice Principal Thomas Orput was reassigned to the Berkeley Adult School in 2006 and replaced by Margaret Lowry. 

“There was a shift in discipline as a result of a shift in the administrator in charge of discipline,” Owens said. “Suspensions are subjective to who is handling them...We received a number of concerns about Willard in particular, but we haven’t had a chance to analyze it yet.” 

The Planet reported in February that the Berkeley Board of Education was investigating Willard Vice Principal Margaret Lowry for improper conduct involving two students. Since those allegations appeared, additional complaints surfaced alleging Lowry had repeatedly mistreated students, forced them to write false statements by threatening to expel them and asked them to inform on students to provide her with information. 

Some parents complained that Lowry had suspended their children multiple times and that the district’s complaint process had left families frustrated by the lack of response, follow-up or resolution to their concerns. Lowry, removed from Willard in March and reassigned to a district administrative post, resigned from Berkeley Unified later that month. 

Orput was reassigned to Willard to take over her position in March. 

“Now that Tom is back, hopefully the number of suspensions will go down as well,” Owens said. 

Calls to Willard principal Robert Ithuburn were not returned. 

School Board President John Selawsky told the Planet he had asked the district for an explanation about the spike in suspensions at Willard last year. 

“We will have some explanation on the increase at the next board meeting on May 28,” Selawsky said. “It could be different staff, different student population. Suspensions are not necessarily a bad thing. It sets the bar higher.”  

Berkeley Unified Administrative Coordinator for Student Services Cathi Hackbarth told the Planet discrepancies in reporting the data was one of the reasons behind faulty data. 

“Sometimes the schools themselves may not forward the suspension form, which includes the education code violations, the suspension occurrence date and time, to the office,” she said. “We work with the coordinator of the school-wide computer system to get it reconciled. We are hoping to have it reconciled before the next school year, but that is not in the horizon right now.” 

The Planet has requested a copy of the district’s suspension data by school site which the Office of Student Services sent to the state education department last year. 

School board member Karen Hemp-hill said a compliance agreement from a class action lawsuit against the district mandates that the district track suspensions by race. 

“We do get a report every quarter on suspensions broken down by ethnicity and gender, which makes me believe maybe we are monitoring things more closely,” Hemphill said. “The report I saw in January shows suspension rates for African Americans were off the charts compared to other students.” 

Hemphill said the goal was to create consistency among schools for conflict resolution. 

“We need to do more outreach to families,” she said. “Staff need to know what the law is and be aware of due process.” 

Berkeley Unified expulsion and suspension information for 2006-2007 is available on the California Department of Education website. The data is reported to the state department by each school and district. 


Clarification from the California Department of Education 

Thursday May 29, 2008 

The California Department of Education (CDE) has retracted its statement that state school suspension data, which revealed that Berkeley’s Willard Middle School had one of the highest violent-suspension rates in the Bay Area last year, was inaccurate. In an article in the May 22 Planet, CDE information officer Tina Jung told the Planet the suspension data published in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 19 was “incorrect.” Jung said in an e-mail, “We should not have attested that the data used by the [Chronicle] reporter was inaccurate, only that CDE cannot verify its accuracy.”