Juvenile Justice

Published — December 11, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Data shows San Francisco’s black students suspended at extremely high rates

Black youth are 8% of S.F. high school kids, 50% of ‘defiance’ suspensions


One of America’s most liberal bastions — San Francisco — has cut student suspensions by nearly a third in three years but continues to struggle with grossly disproportionate suspensions of black students.

District data obtained by Public Counsel, the country’s largest pro bono legal group, and community organizers in San Francisco show that African-American students represented only 8 percent of the city’s public high school kids last school year. Yet 50 percent of high school students suspended for misbehavior labeled “willful defiance” were black.

Willful defiance is a vague, catchall category for disruptive student behavior that can range from arriving late to using foul language to refusing to obey instructions.

The district’s black and Latino students are 10 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of the student population.Together, however, students of these ethnic backgrounds comprised 77 percent of all student suspensions and 81 percent of all suspensions for willful defiance.

Just as The City by the Bay is challenged by sharp income divides, its schools, too, suffer from a wide gap in academic achievement between white student and those who are black or Latino.

High rates of suspension result in poor academic performance as out-of-school kids fall behind and disengage from school, said Laura Faer, Public Counsel’s California statewide education rights director.

“These go hand in hand,” she said. “They are not separate.”

Suspensions, Public Counsel has said, are like an “unsupervised vacation” from school, with damaging consequences for students.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Unified School District’s Board of Education began considering a resolution introduced by a member to eliminate, by next fall, the option to suspend students for willful defiance.

“We’ve made some progress in reducing suspensions overall,” said Matt Haney, who introduced the “Safe and Supportive Schools” resolution.

Despite that, Haney said, “the numbers for African American students remain not just troubling, but shocking.”

The resolution calls for out-of-school suspensions to be “an absolute last resort.”

In San Francisco schools, more than two-thirds of all suspensions were for willful defiance.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest district, was already ordered by its board of trustees earlier this year to end suspensions for willful defiance.

The push in L.A. and in San Francisco now is to strengthen disciplinary alternatives already being used in an effort to improve student behavior: counseling, positive behavior intervention and support techniques and restorative justice practices — in which students must sit down and meet with victims of their abusive behavior and make amends.

A Center for Public Integrity and San Francisco Public Press story on San Francisco’s efforts showcased the district’s mixed attempts to spread this model school by school.

District officials in San Francisco could not be reached for comment.

Haney’s resolution would require district administrators to create a plan within four months of the resolution’s passage to ensure that training resources are directed to schools where data shows high rates of suspensions. Training should emphasize “trauma-informed counseling” — how to work with kids traumatized by life events — and how to recognize racial and ethnic bias in responses to children.

The resolution would also require schools to “get extra help” from the central office and exhaust other methods before suspending black students.

Haney compared to the effort to training police officers with a history of pulling over drivers of a certain race excessively. He said some staff are concerned about having an option taken form them if resources and training are not provided, but that he hasn’t heard pushback defending the status quo.

“Removing a student doesn’t work,” he said. “With removal, the student just comes back more angry and more disruptive.”

Kevine Boggess of San Francisco’s Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a community group, has been working to gather support for eliminating willful defiance suspensions and to boost alternative-discipline training for school staff.

Coleman Advocates is also working on ways to further integrate parents into school life, and bridge tension between parents and educators over discipline problems.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, Coleman said in informational material, found that out-of-school suspensions “are counterproductive to the intended goals” of improving student behavior and “should not be considered an appropriate discipline in many but the most extreme and dangerous circumstances.”

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