Second Chances

Mariah Gullatt might be Modesto City Schools' most notorious 17-year-old girl.

The Modesto High School senior has hopped from school to school since her sophomore year. She's been suspended and nearly expelled after being accused of poking a campus supervisor during a confrontation.

That expulsion, for assault, was thrown out. But not before Mariah missed more than two weeks of school.

Modesto High teachers, many of whom never had Mariah in class, stormed a board meeting in protest, unhappy with the decision and saying they needed tougher discipline to do their jobs. West Modesto activists and parents countered that administrators had overstepped the bounds of the conduct code in disciplining Mariah.

Faced with criticism that student discipline rules were too harsh and often subject to interpretation by administrators, district officials have lightened penalties for studentS who violate the district's student conduct code.

The lighter penalties are for the more minor infractions, such as swearing, eating in class and disobeying a teacher.

"They want the Peter and Priscilla Perfects, but if you're going to work at this school, you're going to have to deal with the harder kids," said Mariah's mother, Jai Gullatt. "When a kid has a troubled history, we need to find where the trouble starts from before we suspend them."

So how did Mariah's trouble start?

She was her junior high class's vice president and earned "The Panther Award" from her freshman year math teacher for being an outstanding student. The Panther is the Modesto High mascot.

But Mariah said she had a nasty temper, which erupted two years ago in front of administrators after she said a classmate harassed her for months, daring her to fight, throwing a soda on her and calling her "a white devil" for being half-white, half-black.

"It was overwhelming," Mariah said. "I thought, 'Nobody's doing anything.' I just lost it and took it out on everybody."

Mariah said that was the first mark on her record, for defiance of authority and using bad language.

Administrators say they can't speak about Mariah's case because of confidentiality, but they say changes to the conduct code this year include more intervention and second chances for troubled students.

Making a deal to improve

Among the tools being used are probation contracts, which allow students to sidestep suspension if they improve their grades and behavior or attend counseling for anger management.

The old version of the code resulted in more missed days of school for minor offenses, such as dress code violations. Some rules, such as giving home suspensions to students who are habitually tardy, violated state law.

"Our goal is to keep kids on campus and in class if they're not hurting anyone and not being disruptive," said Marlin Sumpter, director of child welfare and attendance.

Two other things moved the district to change the code: an American Civil Liberties Union report and years of outcry from community activists who claimed Modesto schools punished black and Latino students more frequently and harshly than their white peers. Some rules, such as defiance and disobedience, were so nebulous it was easy for administrators to apply them differently, parents said.

The ACLU, in a letter to then-Superintendent Jim Enochs earlier this year, claimed records showed the district expelled and suspended students of color at higher rates than white students.

"There is compelling evidence of significant and persistent racial inequalities in discipline," read a letter from the ACLU. "This is not a new problem in the district."

In addition, Modesto reported suspending and expelling students at higher rates than other urban districts. In a study of student discipline records from the past two years, The Bee found:

Over 18 months, nearly 1,300 suspensions were given to students for being habitually late to class or for "defying authority" over their attendance. As of January 2006, the district told school administrators to stop giving home suspensions to tardy students, although in-school suspensions still are allowed.

Blacks made up 5 percent of Modesto City Schools students but made up 10 percent of students who were disciplined for "excessive tardies" or "defiance of authority."

Nearly 80 percent of all gang-related discipline involved Latino students, with more than 600 incidents last year. The ACLU argued that the conduct code was vague and gave few examples of what constitutes gang-related clothing or behavior.

Modesto schools reported suspending students at higher rates than urban districts throughout Northern California in 2005-2006, including Fresno, Sacramento City, Oakland and San Francisco unified school districts. Modesto reported giving 270 suspensions for every 1,000 students in the district.

Of those school districts, only Fresno reported a higher rate of student expulsions than Modesto during that year.

District officials can't explain why black students tend to be disciplined more for offenses such as defiance, but they strongly deny that any systematic racism has lead to a skewing of discipline.

District officials said higher expulsion rates for black students than white students are part of a nationwide trend.

"When numbers like that are reported for a particular group, we need to look into it," Superintendent Arturo Flores said. "(The conduct code) needs to be administered equally across the board. If kids can see consis- tency, it really helps."

Home suspensions doubted

Some acknowledge Modesto has been slow to adopt new ways to treat students that don't include suspending or expelling them.

"I truly do not believe that either the board or the administrative staff has any ethnic group singled out," school board member Connie Chin said. "But I didn't feel home suspensions did a whole lot for the students and their families. They lost class time and they're home unsupervised many times."

Flores has begun exploring the idea of bringing small learning communities to Modesto high schools, as he did in Sacramento. There, large high schools were broken down into groups based on subjects such as international studies and business. The reform called for eight smaller high schools with no more than 500 students each.

"A lot of times with young people, it's about the teachers knowing them a little bit better and the students knowing the teachers and their expectations better," Flores said.

John Ervin, the district's director of community affairs, said the stricter interpretations of the conduct code were a reaction to the 1999 Columbine massacre, where two Colorado students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School before killing themselves.

The no-tolerance wave caused expulsions to peak at nearly 350 during the 2002-03 school year. That number has been cut to just over 200 expulsions last year.

"Our society was in zero-tolerance mode for everything," Ervin said. "Things that when I was growing up would be considered immature or silly things turned into kids getting sus- pended, if they were lucky, expelled or worse."

It takes eight missed days of school for a student to fall off track to graduate from high school, the district said. And schools lose state money for each day a student isn't in class, $40 per student per day. In Modesto City Schools, a half-percentage point drop in attendance translates into $600,000 in lost funds.

But school officials still must recommend students for expulsion if they're caught doing one of what the district calls "The Big Five": brandishing a knife, sexual assault, selling a controlled substance, possession or sale of firearms, and possession of an explosive.

Vowing to get diploma

Now a senior, Mariah is back at Modesto High after stints at Davis, Downey and Elliott Alternative Education Center. She is determined to graduate from where she started high school.

Her brother, 16-year-old Marcus, also has been disciplined, mostly for being a class clown and arriving late.

But he's staying out of trouble since he was given a probation contract. Rather than transferring Marcus to an alterative school, officials let him stay at Modesto High if he improved his grades and stayed out of trouble.

He mentors children at Franklin Elementary School and raised his grade point average from 1.67 to 3.64.

"There's a greater number of kids like Marcus than kids like Mr. Graduate," his mother said. "We need rules to accommodate individual children."

Jai Gullatt said she "fell asleep at the wheel" when Mariah began having discipline problems. She said her daughter was offered tutoring and counseling that never came, and information from administrators wasn't forthcoming. Mariah and her mom said Mariah's reputation seemed to follow her at each school where she fled from her problems, making it difficult to start over.

"I came from an era where you didn't question authority," Gullatt said. "I do now. I'm not the only parent who has gone through this. I'm just more boisterous."

Mariah doesn't have time to play on the basketball team as she did her freshman year, because she's busy trying to make up the credits she needs to graduate. She goes to school from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day to catch up.

"I know it's possible," Mariah said. "But it's hard to do everything right."

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.