‘Back-door’ transfers can disrupt children’s education and relationships, raise risk of depression and poor morale

This article was reported and published by The Hechinger Report in collaboration with the Los Angeles Times and is republished with permission.

Twice a week Ricky Carmona, 16, leaves his La Verne home to attend school in makeshift classrooms a few doors down from the Boot Barn at a nearby strip mall.

He ended up at Options for Youth charter school in Upland after he was suspended at the start of the 2022-23 school year from Bonita High for vaping in the bathroom. Less than a week after the suspension, Stephanie Carmona, Ricky’s aunt and guardian, received a letter: The principal had recommended Ricky for an “involuntary transfer” out of Bonita.

He wasn’t technically being expelled. But to Ricky, it sure felt like it.

“A transfer is, like, something you do voluntarily,” Ricky said.

Ricky Carmona, 16, and his aunt and guardian, Stephanie Carmona, tried to fight his disciplinary transfer but California law gives district wide discretion when it comes to such transfers. Photo: Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times

Transfers like Ricky’s represent a large yet hidden share of California’s exclusionary discipline, blocking students from attending their own schools and pushing them onto new campuses or into smaller, alternative schools, according to an investigation by the Hechinger Report.

While some educators defend transfers as a gentler alternative to expulsion, critics say these moves have limited or no due process protections and can carry the same problems associated with expulsion by disrupting a child’s education.

Despite policies that require California school districts to report the number of students transferred, the Department of Education’s overlapping and vague data reporting requirements mean it’s often unclear why a student changed schools.

State officials declined to provide any statewide data about transfers, saying a database in which they maintain the information is exempt from disclosure because it contains identifying information about students.

A Hechinger analysis of district-level reports — obtained through public records requests to 23 of the state’s largest districts — revealed deeper insights into local transfer practices that take place with little public accountability or clear disclosure.

Over five academic years spanning 2016-17 to 2020-21, these districts recorded 5,800 transfers in a category for “specific discipline reasons.” As many as 3,700 of these could be expulsions. School districts are required to report expulsions to the state and to the public. But the category also includes involuntary transfers such as Ricky’s and court-mandated transfers to juvenile justice facilities’ schools.

The districts – which serve more than 1 million, or 17 percent, of the state’s 5.9 million students – also recorded more than 16,300 additional transfers to alternative schools, another transfer category. Student advocates and educators say these moves frequently follow behavior problems. But the state does not require districts to specify the reason a student is transferred to an alternative school.

Students can enroll in alternative schools to better meet their needs — smaller campuses, behavioral or academic supports, a more flexible school day. Educators and others say it can be beneficial for some students to change schools and get a fresh start.

But advocates say transparency is needed in state data to ensure that districts are not hiding disciplinary transfers to alternative schools, especially when those campuses can also have lower academic rigor and graduation rates, and higher chronic absenteeism.

“Transfers are being used as a back-door way of removing kids from school,” said Chelsea Helena, an education attorney for Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. “And it’s impacting Black and brown kids more.”

In the majority of districts, including San Bernardino City Unified, Long Beach Unified and Oakland Unified, Black students were disproportionately represented among students transferred for discipline reasons or to alternative schools, according to the district data. While Latino students were not overrepresented in most districts, their sizable share of enrollment means they were most frequently transferred.

Even more disciplinary transfers likely occur when students are counseled to voluntarily switch from one traditional school to another. Victor Leung, director of education equity for the ACLU of Southern California, says that these types of transfers are “one of the most common and insidious problems” his education team sees. Parents are often pressured to agree to the voluntary transfer to avoid a formal expulsion, even though the expulsion carries due process and appeals rights, Leung said. An additional layer of oversight requires school board approval of expulsions.

Districts track why students leave a given school, reporting to the state whether it was for discipline reasons, among other categories. The data doesn’t get reported publicly.

Unlike expulsions – generally assigned for serious physical injury or possession of drugs or weapons – transfers are largely unregulated. Districts develop their own policies with varying rules – if any – to appeal moves.

In 2014, a state law prohibited districts from forcing students to transfer if they were recommended for expulsion but won their expulsion hearing. Yet a loophole remains that allows districts to transfer a student instead of expelling them and face minimal scrutiny.

Following a reporter’s inquiries to the Department of Education about its transfer process oversight and reporting rules, state Supt. Tony Thurmond in a press release acknowledged “that some districts have pushed families toward voluntary or involuntary transfer to avoid reporting expulsions.”

Last month he announced the creation of a public tip line to identify districts doing exactly this. “School districts trying to hide actual discipline rates through practices such as masking expulsions as transfers will not be tolerated,” Thurmond said.

Ricky has a history of behavior problems in school, leading to detentions, Saturday school and occasional suspensions. But he said the forced transfer came as a shock, especially as it was handed down just days into the new school year.

“I was not on my last chance at all, or nothing like that,” Ricky said. “When I got the letter, I cannot lie, I didn’t believe it was happening at all.”

In a letter shared by Carmona, Ricky’s aunt, the district described the involuntary transfer as a generous alternative to expulsion. Ricky’s family doesn’t see it that way.

Attorneys from the Children’s Rights Clinic at Southwestern Law School offered to help him fight the transfer, but district officials at Bonita Unified held firm.

Jenny Rodriguez-Fee, director of the clinic, said the district's response to their appeal cited internal policy.

"But they don’t cite any laws," Rodriguez-Fee said, "because there is no law."

Over a five-year time period, Sacramento City Unified expelled 42 students, but it transferred 511 for specific discipline reasons and logged 3,281 transfers to alternative schools.

One reason expulsions have come under attack in California and nationwide is because of the disruption they cause in students’ lives and their academic trajectories. California has one of the lowest expulsion rates in the country.

But discipline-related transfers can bring the same consequences. Switching schools, whatever the reason, tends to be bad for kids, harming their development, disrupting their relationships and, most severely and consistently, suppressing their test scores and likelihood of graduation.

In Ricky’s case, he is further behind at Options for Youth and is barely accumulating credits. He spent more than half the school year completing packets mostly independently — and the family is exploring a GED diploma as an alternative goal.

Neither the Bonita Unified School District nor Options for Youth commented on his situation.

“Any disruption to a child’s education program is a problem,” said Helena, of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County. “Especially coming off of two years of catastrophic disruption to kids’ education.”

In the 23 districts that provided data, transfer numbers varied widely.

For example, the 114,500-student San Diego Unified, the second-largest in the state, expelled 335 students, transferred 288 for specific discipline reasons and sent 94 to alternative schools.

But Sacramento City Unified, which serves nearly 44,000 students, expelled 52, transferred 511 for specific discipline reasons and logged 3,281 transfers to alternative schools.

Schools log how many students transfer out for specific discipline reasons or get transferred to alternative schools, among other categories. But the data isn’t reported publicly.

One of the hundreds of Sacramento City Unified students transferred so far this school year is a 15-year-old named Kyla, who asked that her last name be withheld due to privacy concerns. She was forced to change schools as a punishment for bringing to school knives and pepper spray that she considered protection against off-campus threats.

According to the district, Capital City School — her destination — is “a voluntary K-12 independent study school characterized by its friendly, nurturing and safe environment.” At first, Kyla would go in on Tuesdays to interact with teachers in person, but those meetings have been moved to Zoom; Kyla said they last no more than 20 minutes. The rest of the week, she’s on her own, working from her bedroom. Kyla said she can go entire days with nothing to do while she waits for teachers to send assignments.

“It’s really lonely,” she said.

Kyla only has three courses right now — English, writing and journaling, her elective. No math or science, subjects in which she is behind.

Stephan Brown, director of student hearing and placement in Sacramento City Unified, said families often support transfers as a fresh start for their children.

Brown said the majority of transfers to alternative schools in Sacramento City Unified are for reasons other than discipline, such as being behind on coursework. The district has partnered with community organizations that help mediate conflicts and minimize the need for exclusionary discipline. Brown considers transfers to be a positive alternative to expulsion, rather than a shadow of the same process.

Administrators in Riverside Unified and San Bernardino City Unified school districts also described their alternative schools as supportive, complementary educational options for students who struggled in traditional schools.

Transfer data is unclear in Los Angeles Unified, which has spent years working to reduce exclusionary discipline. The district, which serves more than 400,000 students, beat the state by almost a decade in banning suspensions for willful defiance, including for actions such as chewing gum, playing with a phone, tapping feet and napping.

Despite its discipline reform initiatives, California’s largest district does not appear to follow the state’s instructions for logging its transfers.

In data LAUSD submitted to the state, obtained from the district through a public records request, the district reported zero transfers for discipline reasons and zero transfers to alternative schools from the 2016-17 through 2020-21 school years.

The district operates a program it calls “opportunity transfers” for students who are moved to a new school “to address student misconduct after prior interventions have failed.”

A district spokesperson, in writing, described opportunity transfers as a response to less egregious student misbehavior that falls short of an expulsion. They tend to be voluntary, proposed by the school or district, but agreed upon by a student’s family. Parents can appeal the transfer and the decision of the appeal committee is final.

“Transfers are being used as a back-door way of removing kids from school. And it’s impacting Black and brown kids more.”

Chelsea Helena, education attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County

LA USD's internal records show the district made 138 opportunity transfers districtwide from the 2017-18 school year through the 2021-22 school year.

The district logs opportunity transfers with the state as “regular, nondisciplinary transfers” because they are voluntary, the spokesperson said. But such a classification conflicts with its own discipline-related definition and state guidance.

LAUSD served almost 35,000 students across 53 of its alternative schools during the 2021-22 school year, according to state enrollment data. Officials did not answer questions about how students come to be enrolled in alternative schools or how their transfers to alternative schools are recorded.

The district’s discipline efforts have focused on expanding programs nurturing positive student behavior and improving school culture, including with a daily focus on mindfulness and trauma-informed practices.

“We truly have an array of practices that are working to address school climate and positive culture in all schools,” said Pia Escudero, the district’s executive director of student health and human services.

Megan Stanton-Trehan, director of the Youth Justice Education Clinic at Los Angeles’ Loyola Law School, credits LAUSD for taking steps to reduce exclusionary discipline, but she said she and others question the accuracy of the district’s reported transfer data.

“If it’s not clear the different categories of transfers that are happening, it becomes difficult for the community to understand what the real problems are,” she said. “Is it really discipline? Is it attendance? Does the student need special education or other supports that they’re not receiving?”

In October 2021, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County filed suit against the California Department of Education, alleging Black and Latino students are disproportionately harmed by some districts’ disciplinary policies and the state’s failure to monitor and take action againsttransfers that function as exclusionary discipline.

The state is violating the right of equal protection for students by failing to safeguard their right to an equal education, the suit alleges. Attorneys are currently preparing to go to trial.

The 38,000-student Sweetwater Union High School District expelled just 23 students over the five-year time period it transferred 626 for specific discipline reasons and logged another 4,583 transfers to alternative schools.

There have been other calls for legislative action, including requiring clear public reporting of discipline-related transfers with categories that identify why a student transferred.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, who has introduced a series of measures on school discipline, said she is considering how the legislature might take action after learning of the Hechinger Report’s findings.

The California Department of Education is working on guidance that would advise districts on their use of disciplinary transfers, a spokesperson said.

Recent momentum to address transfers comes as schools have reported more severe problems with student behavior since the pandemic.

Experts say school districts must be proactive, which requires training teachers in child and adolescent development, relationship building and behavior management as well as staffing schools with adequate numbers of counselors and social workers.

Santa Ana Unified maintains its low expulsion and transfer numbers with the help of an increasingly popular disciplinary approach called restorative practices. Under the model, teachers and school leaders prioritize building positive relationships with all students, laying the foundation for fewer behavior problems. They also intervene proactively when students start having trouble, attempting to solve behavior problems before they get serious.

“Any disruption to a child’s education program is a problem. Especially coming off of two years of catastrophic disruption to kids’ education.”

Chelsea Helena, education attorney at Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County

When students act out in ways that demand more traditional discipline, "restorative" practices like "re-entry circles" aim to smooth the path back to class, repairing relationships damaged by misbehavior in hopes of breaking vicious cycles. “We repeat what we don't repair,” a quote on the district's Restorative Practices website, offers a guiding mantra for educators.

Still, school leaders face what can seem like competing priorities: serving all students, including those who misbehave and require discipline, and maintaining an orderly school environment. Advocates say understanding transfers is key to understanding how discipline is being meted out to California students.

When Ricky talks about his situation, he slips into saying he was expelled.

“It might as well be [an expulsion],” he said. “I can’t go back.”

This story about exclusionary discipline practices was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Type of work:

Tara García Mathewson is a reporter covering inequality and innovation in K-12 education, nationally, and she oversees coverage for Hechinger en Español as the languages editor. She has been writing...