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Suspended: Inequality in School Discipline

Although there were nearly 200,000 willful defiance suspensions last year in California, that's actually a sign of progress.
Empty classroom

Sacramento teenager Dwayne Powe Jr. got a suspension in eighth grade. He didn't get into a fight. He wasn't caught with drugs. He committed no crime.

"I actually was asking for a pencil," Powe said.

He was technically suspended for "willful defiance".

Powe said his class began an exercise and he asked to borrow a pencil from another student. That's when his teacher told Powe he was being disruptive and made him leave class. Powe tried explaining he had only asked for a pencil, but that only dug his hole deeper, he said.

"All I was doing was asking for a pencil, so I got suspended for two days for willful defiance," Powe explained. "Because I was just trying to ask for a pencil."

Nearly 200,000 California students who were suspended for willful defiance last year can relate to Powe's story.

What constitutes willful defiance is somewhat vague, but it generally allows teachers to remove students from the classroom if their behavior is thought to be disruptive or defiant. It's the most common reason California students were suspended -- and students of color are overwhelmingly targeted.

But there is a growing consensus that keeping kids out of the classroom for non-violent behavioral issues has done more harm than good, and students of color are paying the heaviest cost for this policy. The growing consensus includes state and local education officials.

"The research speaks very, very clearly that students of color don't engage in more egregious violations than any other student," California Department of Education Coordinated Student Support Division Director Gordon Jackson said. "So, there's something else at play -- and it could very well be those differences that I think are often represented in the fact that many of our teachers don't look like a lot of our students."

The California Department of Education (CDE) began collecting all sorts of data in 2011, including the numbers on willful defiance suspensions. Jackson said the data confirmed what many suspected all along.

"Collecting the data just confirmed that there is a certain level of disproportionality, particularly in those areas that are subjective –- willful defiance, disturbance -– that there's a high preponderance of African-American and Latino or students of color that are suspended," Jackson explained.

However, policies built around a model called "restorative justice" or "restorative practices" are looking promising according to early results, Jackson said. Rather than focus on punishment alone, restorative justice is about building student-teacher relationships and addressing at-risk behavior early in a student's development. It's also about realizing that learning doesn't happen in a vacuum, and issues such as health, family life and self-esteem also effect classroom success. Jackson said he learned these lessons first-hand as a teacher.

"I could not say at the end of the day that I was so overburdened because I tried to build a relationship with these students," Jackson said. "I think I would be more burdened if I was dealing with students who just wanted to throw things at me and didn't want to follow any direction, and I'm writing referrals and that's my day."

Although there were nearly 200,000 willful defiance suspensions last year in California, that's actually a sign of progress. Just two years ago that number was close to 350,000.

The CDE wants local school districts to continue moving away from suspensions and towards restorative practices, but they can't force change. California is a local control state; which means policy is implemented at the district level. State education officials can't impose their will, they can only nudge, prod and offer guidance.

"There are places in California, which I shall not name as you suggest, where I don't know if they're waiting for a written invitation, but they have not yet decided this is a hill that we have to climb," Jackson said.

What hasn't changed, however, is the disparity in the system, particularly for African-American students. They've accounted for roughly 20 percent of willful defiance suspensions each year since 2011, despite accounting for about 6 percent of student enrollment. White students also account for 20 percent of willful defiance suspensions, but they make up 25 percent of the student population. Those numbers are often even more skewed at the district level.

"Some of my white friends, they think it's funny to a sense," Powe said. "But they don't realize what it's like just being automatically accused without even doing anything."

Though it may be tough for white students to put themselves in those shoes for a day, organizations like the Black Parallel School Board know the uphill battle students of color can face in school and have been working to end zero-tolerance disciplinary policies for years. They describe their primary mission as supporting the educational growth and achievement of black students.

"What's taking place in schools is basically an expression or reflection of what takes place in society," said Carl Pinkston, a community activist and member of the Black Parallel School Board. "And basically teachers, administrators and the entire educational system is reflective of that."

John Hunter, a sophomore at Kennedy High School, said he got caught in that system. Looking at Hunter, one may think he'd struggle to graze a basketball rim with his longest finger, let alone dunk the ball. But that's exactly what Hunter said landed him in a room for several periods with nothing to do while serving time for an in-school suspension.

"Oh yeah, I got hops," Hunter said.

Hunter said his freshman PE class was playing basketball and he dunked the ball, thinking nothing of it. But what came next surprised him.

"I mean, it's basketball, why would you not dunk the ball?" Hunter said. "So I dunked the ball and she just, she just wrote me up."

Hunter said he couldn't even do homework, just sit on a stool and stare at the wall.

The Sacramento Unified School District has low suspension numbers for a district of its size, but district administrators said they're still trying to reduce those numbers.

"I think sometimes suspensions become a catch-all because a teacher or site administrator just doesn't know what else to do," Sacramento City Unified School District Chief Communications Officer Gabe Ross said. "So, I think the work that we're doing in our schools and what we're continuing to work on is how do we provide those resources and tools so that there are other options so that we can keep kids in school. We know the surest way to ensure a kid doesn't get a good education is if they're not in class."

Last year, students within the district were suspended more than 800 times for willful defiance. African-American students accounted for more than half of those suspensions, despite making up only 17 percent of the student body. Ross acknowledges there's more work ahead.

"While the disproportionality still exists with boys of color, you see that our suspension counts in total are way down from a year ago," Ross said. "That's a great start. It doesn't address all our issues, but it's a step in the right direction."

Disproportionate suspension numbers are the norm, not the exception when it comes to local school districts. Data from the CDE showed district after district with diverse student populations target students of color far more than white students.

Lodi Unified School District had 17,000 fewer students than Sacramento City Unified, yet they handed out more than 2,300 willful defiance suspensions last year. The district had more than three times as many white students as black students, yet black students were suspended 564 times last year, compared to only 425 suspensions for white students.

Natomas Unified School District was another diverse school district, and the disparity was even more apparent. There were about the same number of white and black students, but only one of those groups seemed to get suspended for willful defiance. Last year, black students were suspended 119 times, but only nine white students were suspended.

"There is a disparity that exists," Natomas School District Director of Communications Jim Sanders said. "I don't think the data gives a simple answer to that. What we can tell you is that our system of discipline is colorblind. We can also tell you that our core belief is that where disparity exists it can and must be eliminated."

Sanders said he's optimistic those numbers will drop quickly as the district makes an effort to move towards restorative justice and away from suspensions. Many of the district's policies that focus on at-risk kids were in their infancy, but the early results looked good. If the first semester numbers hold true, Sanders said the district will see a 50 percent decrease in African-American suspensions this year.

The legacy of unequal school discipline can be seen in the incarceration rates for African-Americans, Pinkston said. Black students sometimes faced an uphill battle, and if they stumble, their long-term prospects can be in jeopardy.

"In this particular society, in this particular period in the 21st century informational society, they will not survive," Pinkston said. "They will be on track to another system, which is the school-to-prison pipeline."

Ricardo Lemus, a former gang member, washed out of school and straight down that prison pipeline when he was a teenager. He shares his story as part of the Brown Issues program aimed at engaging Latino students at local schools.

"By the time I was 15, I was incarcerated, and that had to do with getting suspended and getting detention," Lemus said.

Lemus is now enrolled at Sacramento City College. He had to start with basic math, but he's now learning trigonometry and planning to start a business. He's a guy teenagers can relate to, and he uses that influence to help students avoid being manipulated by gangs.

Jose Verdin, the parent adviser at McClatchy High School, runs the Brown Issues program at his school. He said without programs like Brown Issues, kids from tough neighborhoods could fall through the cracks. Those kids, Verdin said, don't always find classroom instruction relevant to their lives.

"When we're talking about the hardships of living on welfare, the hardships of going to prison, when we as Brown Issues touch on those subjects, the students are like, 'oh, this is really relevant to my household,'" he said.

Verdin said the Brown Issues program also gave him a chance to address frustrated kids before that frustration boiled over and turned into something more serious. For that, he needed trust, and that starts with building relationships.

"I'm coming from a neighborhood, too, and I've felt that before," Verdin said. "I've been in fights in school and I've come to realize that I needed that support at home and I needed that at school, and that's what I try to provide here. I don't know how your household is, I could call home and see what we could create, but here on campus, I'll make sure I look out for you."

When students fall off the tracks, it usually doesn't happen suddenly. It's a slow process that begins as early as the third grade. CDE studies shows third grade reading proficiency is a huge indicator of future academic success, and early intervention is critical.

Darryl White, chairperson for the Black Parallel School Board, was fighting against zero-tolerance school discipline policies for years. Now, he advocates for restorative practices.

"Early intervention in a restorative fashion is the way we need to handle our kids," White said. "We need to start that kind of intervention as early as elementary school."

He's a former high school principal, and worked at Grant High School and Luther Burbank High School. When students failed, it's usually because adults failed, he said. White began collecting his own data on suspensions when he was a principal, and found 20 percent of his teachers handed out 80 percent of the suspension referrals. White said he began focusing his efforts on changing the practices of those teachers.

"Students like teachers that are effective," White said. "Maybe this teacher is ineffective, and maybe that is an issue we need to handle. Maybe it is better to handle that issue and resolve all of the student's problems rather than just provide consequences to kids."

White may have been ahead of the curve on this issue, but more and more people are coming around.

"I think that our superintendent Tom Torlakson has a focus on the whole child," Jackson said. "And if we look at the whole child and recognize that what matters most about this person's development is not just his academic success, but also his or her self-esteem, it's health, whether or not he or she is eating lunch. I mean there's so many other components to student success besides whether or not he or she does well on the test."

Had Matthew Germany's teacher recognized this, the Sacramento teen said he may have avoided a suspension.

"It was morning time," Germany said. "First period, I'm not really feeling like interacting in the class because I might have some problems at home or things to where I bring it to school. Just not in the mood or anything."

Germany said he was called on to participate, but a problem at home that morning meant he just wanted to be left alone.

"I didn't feel like interacting or participating in the class," Germany said. "So because of that, they tried to force it upon me and I refused even more. It got into more of a conflict to where she sent me off for being disruptive."

At Twin Rivers Unified School District, new superintendent Dr. Steven Martinez said punishment alone was an ineffective way to deal with students who may be disruptive.

"As we know, suspensions don't really change behavior," Martinez said. "The idea of suspension is really kind of dated."

When he first arrived at the district, Martinez said the high suspension numbers blew him away. The year he took over, the district handed out more than 3,000 suspensions for willful defiance. He said pilot programs geared towards restorative justice and reaching at-risk students were already paying dividends, evidenced by 400 fewer suspensions for African-American students and 200 fewer suspensions for Latino students.

"Our approach, too, is really a holistic approach to willful defiance," Martinez said. "Because I think on the surface level, you think willful defiance means inequities or lack of perception by adults."

Martinez said those pilot programs will soon be expanded district-wide, and he believs their suspension numbers will drop even more as a result.

Many districts are just beginning to roll out these programs, but Men's Leadership Academy programs at McClatchy and Kennedy high schools in Sacramento have already been achieving results. Malcolm Floyd teaches the program at McClatchy.

Floyd used to be an NFL wide receiver, but now he works with students who otherwise might be at risk for suspension, dropping out or worse. His mom, Leataata Floyd, was a community activist. She has an elementary school named after her. Despite having two sons who played in the NFL, she still lives in the same south Sacramento neighborhood Floyd grew up in.

"The main issue for the kids is poverty," Floyd said. "The lack of resources. Being hungry, going to sleep hungry, waking up hungry. Not having pencils, pens paper. It's hard to study when you're worrying about your next meal."

Floyd admitted his playing days helped him engage with students, many of whom want to be athletes themselves, but he avoided talking about his football career, choosing to focus on teaching his students about college and more realistic career goals.

"Our teachers, our firefighters, our policemen, those are the people our students need to hear because they make this world what it is," Floyd said. "They're more important than any athlete. Even as a player, I always felt that way, so it's important for our students to understand who makes the world go round."

Floyd said his program was showing results –- every one of his seniors graduated high school. For students like Powe and Germany, programs like this can be life changing. They're both enrolled in the Men's Leadership Academy at Kennedy High.

"I know where I'm headed now and I have a vision of where I want to be in 10 years, so it's like I know I need to stay focused," Powe said.

But Powe wasn't the only one who is staying focused. In the education system, success is dependent on both students and adults. While Powe and Germany work on getting to college, Pinkston had future generations in mind.

"We are going to push as hard and as long and as tough as we possibly can to get there," Pinkston said. "We may not see it in our lifetime, I may not see it in my lifetime, but I'll be damned I'm going to make sure it happens in my daughter's lifetime or my grandkid's lifetime. It's going to happen."