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Balance of discipline

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 22, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — Blacks and Hispanics are a small slice of The City’s public school population, but make up roughly three-quarters of students who are suspended or expelled.

Blacks make up 7 percent of The City’s total population and 12.5 percent of students within the San Francisco Unified School District. However, half the students who face disciplinary action belong to this ethnic group, according to district data.

Another 20 to 30 percent of those disciplined are Hispanic. They account for 23 percent of school district students and 14 percent of San Francisco’s population.

Leaders within and outside the school district said the numbers are troubling — and more than one cited the data as evidence of racism within SFUSD.

“Just look at the data. We are so wrong, and we want to get to the bottom of it,” said Board of Education member Kim-Shree Maufas. “It may be that this happened over time, through misunderstanding, through cultural incompetence.”

The Board of Education has the authority to approve or deny expulsions, but does not vote on suspension cases, according to SFUSD spokeswoman Gentle Blythe.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier is holding an unrelated hearing today on the SFUSD’s expulsion process. The advisory hearing, hosted by the City and School District Select Committee, will be held at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Board of Education member Jane Kim said she has pushed for more case-by-case information, in part to track which schools or teachers are handing down punishments at higher rates. They should be looking for more creative ways to deter behavior problems, she said.

“We discovered at Galileo High School [that] 80 percent of their suspensions — primarily African-Americans — were being done by one teacher,” Kim said. “It is evidence of racial discrimination that’s left in our schools.”

Two teachers at Galileo High referred a large number of black students for disciplinary action, according to Blythe, who added that both have since retired.

Teachers who discipline minority students may not be conscious they’re doing it, said Dennis Kelly, president of San Francisco’s teachers’ union.

“To the degree that it’s racism, I think it’s subconscious racism,” Kelly said, adding that some teachers avoid disciplining black or Hispanic students for fear that they would be accused of prejudice.

The higher rate of disciplinary measures for some groups of minority students is not unlike SFUSD’s achievement gap, which shows that black and Hispanic students are significantly behind the pace of white and Asian students. Students who are already on shaky ground academically are put at further risk when they miss class due to a suspension.

Although students who are suspended typically return to school within a few days, high school students who are expelled have less chance to make up time missed. They frequently transfer to a continuation school such as Downtown High School, where the dropout rate is nearly 70 percent, according to the California Department of Education.

SFUSD policies urge teachers and principals to consider sending students to counselors or other services when they run into trouble; it also has a peer court — where discipline cases are resolved through mediation — at a handful of schools.

However, overworked educators may not make time for those methods, particularly since filling out a suspension form takes 10 minutes, said Pecolia Manigo, director of youth organizing for Coleman Advocates, a family-focused nonprofit.

“I’ve watched kids get suspended for the dumbest things, like one wouldn’t give his cell phone up,” Manigo said. “Another was talking back to the teacher. You’re suspending kids because they’re being kids.”

Teachers need to make their curriculum more engaging for students whose out-of-school reality involves poverty, violence and family crises, Manigo said.

Hoover Lidell, a consultant to Superintendent Carlos Garcia, said students simply need a challenge, and academic achievement can reduce students’ discipline problems.

“Particularly among black youth, there’s too much remediation, but they’re very capable students,” Lidell said. “By not giving them academic rigor, kids get a second-class education.”

Truancy, dropout rates higher among minorities
Black and Hispanic youths make up the lion’s share of discipline cases in San Francisco public schools — but that’s not the only place they’re overrepresented.

Black kids also made up 38 percent of the students who missed more than 20 days of school during the 2007-08 school year, and 27 percent of black high school students in the class of 2007 dropped out before receiving their diplomas, according to the California Department of Education.

Hispanic students comprised 33 percent of students who missed more than 20 days of school in 2007-08, and 26 percent of Hispanic high school kids dropped out in 2007. Hispanic youths accounted for 24 percent of the Juvenile Hall population in October.

Both District Attorney Kamala Harris and Juvenile Probation Chief William Siffermann have said that students who miss school or drop out wind up in the justice system or become victims of violent crime.

In October, 60 percent of San Francisco Juvenile Hall inmates were black, according to the Juvenile Probation Department.

“At the end of the civil-rights movement, blacks and Latinos were in power; now, these kids are second-class citizens again,” said educator James Calloway, who ran for the Board of Education last fall. “Until we get a grip and call it what it is — racism — it’s not going to get any better.”

Court offers a second chance
Students who run into trouble in San Francisco schools sometimes have the option of facing a court of peers rather than being ousted from school or arrested.

The San Francisco Peer Court, formally launched in 2003, is administered by a San Francisco-based nonprofit mediation and arbitration organization called California Community Dispute Services.

The program operates at Visitacion Valley, Everett and Denman middle schools, and at the Civic Center Secondary School, which is for middle and high school students. Since its founding, 360 youths have moved through the program, diverting 338 days of suspension, 20 expulsions and 25 arrests, according to director Tony Litwak.

Students face disciplinary action for a variety of actions, ranging from fights with fellow students to bringing weapons to school. The mediation process — handled by trained students — forces these students to face their victims and consider the harm they’ve caused, according to Litwak.

“Sentences” range from community service to restitution fines, or even writing papers to learn the effects of what they’ve done.

“When confronted with that, the adolescent understands what they’ve done more concretely,” Litwak said. “Some kids, their behavior is so strong you’re not going to change them. But on the other end, there are kids who are mortified to be [in court].”

Roughly 25 percent of kids who go to court wind up volunteering as mediators, he said.

The San Francisco Unified School District approved a funding increase next year to boost the court’s budget — $212,000 in the 2008-09 school year — but economic shortfalls have forced officials to suspend that funding, according to Board of Education member Jane Kim.

Grounds for suspension, expulsion
The San Francisco Unified School District student handbook outlines some of the grounds for which a student can face disciplinary action:

Suspension
Possession of drugs; explosives; mace or pepper spray without parents’ permission; a stun gun; tobacco products; school keys without authorization
Assault
Graffiti
Hazing
Robbery
Threats or abuse toward fellow students

Expulsion
Selling drugs
Possession of explosives, weapons, stun gun
Arson
Assault
Extortion
Hate violence
Hazing
Robbery
Threats or abuse toward fellow students
Source: SFUSD student handbook

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

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Written by Beth Winegarner

January 22, 2009 at 5:48 AM

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