School districts in four of five Southern California counties outperformed the state average in reducing suspensions last year amid growing calls nationwide to find more effective ways to correct student misbehavior.

Districts in Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties imposed 37,325 fewer suspensions last year than the year before and posted sharper declines in their respective suspension rates than the statewide average, according to an analysis of selected California counties by the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

L.A. County, for instance, reduced its rate by about 42% more than the state; the other counties outperformed the state by 12% for San Bernardino, 59% for Riverside and 60% for Ventura.

Orange County's reduction equaled the state average. But Orange reported the lowest number of suspensions per 100 students last year — 3.4 compared with 9.12 for San Bernardino County and 5.10 for Los Angeles County, according to the analysis of state discipline data released last week.

"These are unquestionably positive results. California school districts are beginning to understand that extreme suspension-first policies neither improve school climate nor boost academic achievement," said Daniel J. Losen, the study's lead author and director of the UCLA project.

Losen added, however, that suspension rates remained too high and that students are still sent home on a daily basis for minor infractions unrelated to fighting or drugs.

Across California, suspension rates fell across all ethnic and racial groups last year, with the largest declines for African Americans and Latinos. In all, the number of suspensions statewide dropped by 14.1% to 609,471 last year from 709,596 over the previous year.

Two-thirds of 747 school districts reporting discipline data lowered their suspension rates, with sizable reductions by Rialto Unified, Central Unified and Bakersfield City school districts. Those districts also made the most progress in lowering the disproportionately high rate of suspensions for African Americans.

The declines come amid a national movement to lower suspensions, which have been found to imperil academic achievement and lead to more student run-ins with police. A 2013 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that just one suspension in ninth grade correlated with a doubling in the risk of dropping out and a threefold increase in the risk of involvement with the juvenile justice system.

The greater push to find alternative discipline practices has prompted changes in both districts with high and low rates of suspensions.

Azusa Unified in the San Gabriel Valley, for example, reported the largest reduction in suspensions of African Americans among the 80 school districts in Los Angeles County and the third-largest declines for all students. District officials made a "really concerted effort to try to find other ways to discipline students" after receiving directives to do so from state officials, said Garry Creel, director of child welfare and attendance.

One new program moves some students with serious discipline problems who might otherwise be suspended to another campus with smaller class sizes and full-time counselors to help them work on such problems as anger and substance abuse, he said.

Overall, the students improved their grades and behavior, and many were able to return to their home campuses within six months, he said.

Other L.A. county school districts that led the way in reducing suspensions included Centinela Valley Union High School, Compton Unified, Acton-Agua Dulce, Whittier City Elementary, Bonita Unified, Whittier Union High School, Pasadena Unified, Culver City Unified and Antelope Valley Union High School.

And some districts still struggling with high suspension rates said they are making changes they hope will turn the tide. Lancaster School District reported the second-highest suspension rate in L.A. County, with 22.58 suspensions per 100 students, an increase over last year. It also had among the highest rates for African Americans and Latinos.

Jullie Eutsler, Lancaster's director of pupil safety and attendance, said the district was "alarmed" by its high suspension rates.

"We looked at our data and knew we needed to do something," she said. "We don't want our kids missing school."

With the aid of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the district is rolling out a popular program to set high behavioral expectations, reward students for meeting them and use graduated responses for those who don't. More than 150 teachers and administrators were preparing for a two-day training on the program, she said.

But Lancaster does not plan to eliminate defiance as grounds for suspension, as Los Angeles Unified did last year. Officials will first try to work with the student and parents to correct the misbehavior, but if the disruption and defiance continues, they could be suspended, Eutsler said.

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