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More San Francisco women choosing home birth despite the higher cost

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by Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
January 29, 2012

Rita Kearns lies back as her midwife measures her gravid belly. Maria Iorillo presses a fetoscope to Kearns’ side and finds the baby’s heartbeat. “It’s perfect,” she says, passing Kearns the earpieces.

Kearns, 43, is 41 weeks pregnant — one week past her due date. By now, many obstetricians would suggest inducing labor. Iorillo is content to wait. And, when the contractions begin, Kearns will give birth at home, as she’s done twice before.

She is one of a growing number of area women choosing to give birth at home. Local home births have doubled since 2005, even as overall births declined nearly 7 percent from 2007, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Many families choose home birth even though insurance companies frequently leave them holding the bag for some or all of the costs.

Families choose home birth for a variety of reasons, said midwife Michelle Welborn. Some fear hospitals and medical intervention. Others want a natural birth, or control of the birthing environment, Welborn said.

At hospitals, women often face doctors eager to accelerate labor, said Redwood City doula Sandra Caldwell. That can lead to complications, even Caesarean sections.

Others turn away from hospitals because they don’t appreciate rushed prenatal visits attended by a revolving-door cast of nurses and doctors. Gia Schultz, 30, was 22 and 30 weeks pregnant when she hired a midwife to deliver her son at home.

“Instantly knew I wanted her at my birth,” Schultz said. “She had an actual interest in getting to know us … our wants, needs and unique characteristics. In the hospital you didn’t have enough time for that.”

San Francisco’s midwives and home-birth supporters have worked hard to make The City a home-birth mecca.

They network through the Bay Area Homebirth Collective, offer birth classes and potlucks, and have fought to legalize home birth and encourage hospitals to embrace it.

When Iorillo came to San Francisco in 1985, it was illegal for her to deliver babies at home, despite her license from a renowned midwifery school. She served on the California Board of Midwives for 10 years, during which she saw two bills legalizing non-nurse midwives fail before the third passed in 1994.

Local midwives worked with UC San Francisco’s birth center to overcome the hostility many women faced when they told their obstetricians they were planning a home birth — hostility that often returned if they wound up transferring to a hospital during labor.

“We had doctors who think home birth isn’t safe, and I think the majority of doctors feel that way,” said Judith Bishop, a former home-birth midwife who now delivers babies at UCSF. “We wanted to make sure there isn’t a divisive feeling between hospital and home birth, that people don’t feel they’re treated badly for coming in, or that we treat them with less respect.”

When that happens, she added, women and midwives become reluctant to transfer, risking the health of both mother and child.

Now, the only San Francisco hospital where doctors may decline to accept home-birth transfers is the California Pacific Medical Center.

Spokesman Kevin McCormack said CPMC isn’t opposed to home births, but its obstetricians, who are independent practitioners, can choose not to back up patients planning home births. CPMC delivers nearly half the babies born here each year, and has a 29 percent C-section rate, just slightly lower than the state average of 32.8 percent.

California hospitals charge upward of $15,000 for an uncomplicated vaginal birth, and often $30,000 or more for a C-section. While health-insurance providers cover most or all of those costs, they routinely reimburse 50 percent or less for home birth, which costs just $4,000 to $6,000 — including all prenatal and postnatal care.

“It’s kind of amazing when you think about it,” Bishop said. “It would be so much cheaper for insurance companies not to pay the hospital bill, which is gigantic.”

Coverage for home birth varies depending on the insurance provider and the patient’s plan, noted Schultz, who now handles insurance billing for Rites of Passage Midwifery. Kaiser doesn’t cover anything. Others may pay anywhere from 20 to 50 percent — even 100 percent, if the stars align.

“The key is patience,” Schultz said. “Insurance companies always come back and say they won’t pay you; you have to go through the process of denial over and over.”

Susan Pisano, spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a collective of 1,300 insurers, said the coverage issues relate to patient safety. “The bottom line,” she said, “is the evidence has been pretty sparse on the safety of home births.”

But according to a 2005 British Medical Journal study of 5,000 American births, home birth has similarly low rates of infant and maternal mortality as low-risk hospital births. Other studies have echoed these findings.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is beginning to soften. In October, it met with midwives for the first Home Birth Summit in Virginia. “Instead of all the backstabbing and trying to squelch us out of existence, they had an open conversation about where we can find consensus,” Iorillo said.

Natural-birth centers forced to close doors

Home births are increasingly popular, but the sagging economy has hit natural-birth advocates hard, leaving pregnant parents with fewer choices.

St. Luke’s Hospital closed its “Homestyle” program — which offered in-house midwives and a more natural birthing model — in 2007 to help keep the financially strapped hospital from closing. Earlier this year, Sage Femme, The City’s only independent birthing center, shuttered its Capp Street facility after reimbursements from Medi-Cal and other insurance providers shrank.

Natural Resources, the 24-year-old shop that provides classes, birth-tub rentals and supplies for natural-birth families, narrowly escaped the same fate in November when it raised $48,000 through crowd-sourcing.

“It started with the economy,” said Natural Resources owner Cara Vidano. “Over time, our revenue has decreased.

Even with cutting costs, we haven’t been able to pay all our bills.” After failing to find a buyer for the struggling store, Vidano faced two choices: raise donations or close.

Sage Femme and its head midwife, Judy Tinkelenberg, delivered hundreds of babies in their 12 years in the Mission district. Tinkelenberg was the only midwife in San Francisco to accept Medi-Cal. The average client paid $3,820 to $4,500 for a birth at Sage Femme, including all prenatal and post-natal care. Until recently, Medi-Cal would cover almost $2,000 of that, but in recent years, their reimbursement dropped to less than $1,200 per birth.

“And, if the patient transfers to a hospital” — which 5 to 40 percent of home-birth moms do, depending on the midwife — “I don’t get paid at all,” Tinkelenberg said. “If I had cut Medi-Cal I don’t know if it would have been made up for with paying patients.”

For both businesses, the community — not the health care industry — is what may keep birth options alive.

Tinkelenberg is now attending home births and working with the Alameda-based Birth Options Foundation to raise money for a new birth center somewhere in the Bay Area.

For Natural Resources, the influx of donations “means we will be able to function again,” Vidano said. “If everything goes as planned, we will be in business for a while. This isn’t just a short-term solution.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

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Written by Beth Winegarner

January 29, 2012 at 9:46 PM

Book captures Bay Area’s thrash heyday

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Beth Winegarner
Special to the Examiner
Dec. 30, 2011

The Bay Area may be known for Silicon Valley’s innovations, but it was another breakthrough altogether that gave it a permanent spot on the international heavy-metal map: thrash.

The early years of such seminal local bands as Metallica, Exodus, Testament, Death Angel and Vio-lence — plus their Los Angeles brethren Megadeth and Slayer — are captured in the new photo book “Murder in the Front Row: Shots From the Bay Area Thrash Metal Epicenter,” by Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew, out this week.

Oimoen and Lew’s snapshots reveal fresh-faced kids who worked hard onstage and played hard offstage. In one backyard shot, Metallica spits beer at Oimoen’s lens. In another, Exodus members balance light bulbs on their heads in bassist Gary Holt’s mom’s garage.

“One of the coolest, least known, and most unpublicized things about the Bay Area thrash metal scene back in the day has been the great brotherhood and camaraderie that was and is so prevalent,” Oimoen wrote in his introduction to the book. “There was no distinction between bands and fans like there is today.”

That camaraderie allowed Oimoen and Lew to get close to many bands and capture photos that couldn’t happen today — such as Metallica’s James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett lying side-by-side in bed with guitars, cigarettes and beer in their hands.

For many bands, the volume is a kind of yearbook of the early 1980s, said Death Angel singer Mark Osegueda. “I saw it at Kirk Hammett’s house — we sat and went through it for about an hour, and it brought back some memories of things we didn’t know were captured,” he said.

For the rest of the world, “Murder in the Front Row” is either a reminder of those times, or an introduction to the original thrash metal scene for a new generation of teens just discovering the genre. Serendipity led Lew and Oimoen to release the book now, just as Metallica and Slayer are celebrating their 30th anniversaries and toured with Anthrax and Testament this year.

“We’ve had these pictures for 30 years,” Lew said. “It’s better that we didn’t put the book out 10 or 15 years ago, because a lot of the younger metal bands are being influenced by the book the era covers.”

Outcasts latched onto thrash in the 1980s because it was the most aggressive music available, and fans today are looking for the same thing, according to Osegueda.

“I think it’s more viable now, ironically enough. Politically, the world’s in a state of utter chaos and turmoil, and that’s when this type of music seems to resonate,” he said. “This aggressive sound makes them feel like they’re getting something out of their system.”

BOOK NOTES
Murder in the Front Row

By Harald Oimoen and Brian Lew
Publisher Bazillion Points
Pages 272
Price $34.95

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 30, 2011 at 8:36 PM

SFPD’s Ugly History with Pepper Spray

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by Beth Winegarner
Nov. 30, 2011

When San Francisco Police came calling in June of 1995, 37-year-old Aaron Williams probably didn’t think it would be his last day on Earth. But as the pet-store-burglary suspect emerged from his house, a dozen officers piled on him. Police pepper-sprayed him, restrained him, and placed him face-down in a police van. Within an hour, he was dead.

That same month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California issued a sobering report on pepper spray, which had been legalized for police use in October 1992. By May 31, 1995, California law-enforcement officers had used it nearly 16,000 times, roughly 24 times per day. Twenty-six people had died — not including Williams — giving pepper-spray victims a 1-in-600 chance at death.

By October 1995, the San Francisco Police Department had updated its use-of-force policy, which details when and how pepper should be used. However, it appears that SFPD didn’t follow that policy six months later when officers picked up an incoherent Mark Garcia, then pepper-sprayed and hog-tied him. He died the next day, after suffering two massive heart attacks.

Since then, no one has died in SFPD custody following the use of pepper spray, according to Officer Albie Esparza. But with a wave of police pepper-spray attacks on Occupy Wall Street protests in Davis and across the United States, could it happen again?

“Davis was an eye-opener,” said Sean Seamans, a camper at Occupy San Francisco. “As with all ‘non-lethal’ items, as long as you put the ‘non’ in front, it gives you the excuse to use it liberally. And if you have asthma or respiratory issues, it puts lives at risk.”

Pepper spray, sometimes known by its formal name oleoresin capsicum, is a concentrated version of the substances that give spicy peppers their heat. In the human body, these substances release a brain-signaling compound called Substance P. Among other things, Substance P causes the airways to close, triggering uncontrollable coughing and making it difficult to breathe.

“Occupational Health Services, Inc., [a private research facility in Kansas City, Missouri], reported that because [oleoresin capsicum] caused the subject’s breathing passages to swell and constrict, the use of OC on persons with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma could, in rare instances, cause death,” according to the ACLU report.

Local police don’t see it that way. “People do not die from pepper spray itself. There are other, associated factors,” such as alcohol or drug use, as well as the “hog-tie” or hobble restraint, Esparza said. “The pepper spray we use is nothing more than Tabasco sauce in a canister.”

Hmm. According to Tabasco’s website, its spiciest sauce — made of habanero peppers — is a bit more than 7,000 on the Scoville scale, used to measure capsaicin’s potency. Meanwhile, U.S.-grade pepper spray rates somewhere above 2 million on the Scoville scale, according to Scientific American.

While the ACLU report called for better tracking and oversight into police use of pepper spray, other agencies went further. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — then based in San Francisco, demanded a moratorium on the practice, in part because of its potential lethality. No police departments took them up on the demand, according to Ella Baker spokesman Abel Habtegeorgis.

“You’re quicker to use things like that because you’re told that this is not lethal, when in all actuality, your haste in using them can prove to be deadly,” Habtegeorgis said. “If police are going to have these weapons that can be deadly, they should use the same precaution they would use for a gun.”

Eight Headwaters Forest demonstrators won a victory over the police use of pepper spray in 2005, when a Humboldt County judge ruled that officers used excessive force in swabbing the stuff into protester’s eyes. However, the precedent only applies within that county, according to Headwaters Forest Defense spokeswoman Karen Pickett.

“It’s way too limited,” Pickett said. Although the Headwaters trial focused on pepper spray’s potential to cause permanent eye damage, some court evidence showed that it can be fatal when people have respiratory problems.

No Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have died after being pepper-sprayed — and SFPD hasn’t used it on local protesters, according to Esparza and Seamans.

During a recent raid, “I had eight officers on me at one time, and pepper spray was threatened,” Seamans said. He keeps goggles and a respirator at hand, just in case.

“Officers don’t like to use force unless we have to,” Esparza said. “But when someone’s given a lawful order, it’s against the law for them not to follow those orders. If you do what the officer tells you, there’s no need for further escalation.”

This article originally appeared in the SF Weekly’s online news column, The Snitch.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 30, 2011 at 8:20 PM

Local leaders to celebrate Year of the Ox

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Beth Winegarner
San Francisco Examiner
January 30, 2009

For David Chiu, coming to San Francisco — with its thriving, thronging Chinese American community and its all-out celebration of the Chinese New Year — was something of a revelation.

The new Board of Supervisors president, representing North Beach and Chinatown, grew up in Boston, where the feasting and festivities of the Lunar New Year were predominantly a quiet family affair. San Francisco’s celebration, with its hundreds of banquets and internationally celebrated parade, was “great, and frankly, a little overwhelming,” Chiu said.

This week, San Francisco’s Chinese-­American community ushered in the Year of the Ox the same way as past generations: with multi-course meals replete with whole chickens and fish, and noodles for long life. Children will receive much-beloved red envelopes stuffed with coins, and families will perform a ritual of cleaning of the household and lighting a few firecrackers to start the new year with a bang.

The celebration began Monday, the official dawning of the Year of the Ox.

Then, on Feb. 7, some 500,000 people are expect to flock to Chinatown for San Francisco’s annual New Year’s parade, featuring more than 100 floats led by a new, 228-foot-long golden dragon, according to parade director Karen Eng. Most of the holiday traditions hinge on bringing long life and good luck to revelers.

In 2008, the Year of the Rat, couples rushed to get married or have children because the rat is the first sign of the Chinese zodiac, bringing with it the extra luck of a new cycle beginning. The ox, second in the zodiac, carries less significance — but the turning of the year is still a time of tradition.

“Everybody gets new haircuts before New Year’s Day because if you wait, it’s like cutting away your fortune,” Eng said. “Your house has to be cleaned beforehand, otherwise you’re sweeping away your fortune.”

During the Lunar New Year, the color red is everywhere, from paper lanterns to clothing, a suggestion of luck and vitality, according to Judy Hu, spokeswoman for the Chinese Historical Society. Citrus fruits also bring luck because they’re reddish in color.

“My daughter and I eat lots of oranges and tangerines to bring good luck,” said Supervisor Eric Mar, who represents the Richmond district.

Like many in San Francisco’s Chinese community, Mar’s favorite memories of the New Year hinge on food.

“I can still remember the New Year smells of my grandmother’s house,” Mar said. “Even though San Francisco has a fantastic range of Chinese restaurants, my grandmother’s home cooking, especially on Chinese New Year, will always be my favorite.”

Sunset district Supervisor Carmen Chu celebrates the holiday each year with her family, gathering around a spread of candy, fruit and flowers. Getting the whole Chu clan together — especially extended family — is especially meaningful, she said.

“It’s a true community affair,” said Chiu, who — thanks to his new place at the top of the Board of Supervisors — has been asked to attend dozens of New Year’s banquets this month. “I’ve had many wonderful New Year’s dinners with mixed-race groups — it’s a great way for community-building between Chinese and non-Chinese folks.”

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 30, 2009 at 6:48 AM

City’s kids-and-families czar sacked

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 29, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — The popular and respected director of The City’s primary agency serving San Francisco’s children and families has been fired by Mayor Gavin Newsom, officials confirmed Wednesday.

Following months of rumors that Newsom planned to fire her, Margaret Brodkin, four-year director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, said Newsom asked her to leave her post.

“I don’t know the reasons behind [his decision],” Brodkin told The Examiner on Wednesday.

The move leaves youth advocates fearful that as The City faces a projected $576 million budget deficit for next fiscal year, a voter-approved budget set-aside for child-related needs — one of the DCYF’s largest sources of funding — could be in jeopardy.

Newsom is currently in Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. Spokesman Joe Arellano, said he could not discuss the specifics of the firing, citing confidentiality regarding personnel matters.

“Margaret put in great service, but the mayor felt that bringing new blood into DCYF was important,” Arellano said.

Before being hired by Newsom in 2004, Brodkin was the director of the San Francisco nonprofit Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. At Coleman, she led the grassroots campaign that resulted in voters approving a ballot measure establishing The City’s Children’s Fund, which now supplies more than $30 million of DCYF’s $108 million annual budget.

“We’ve been such an engine of productivity,” Brodkin said. “We’ve developed initiatives with 13 other city departments. I don’t think there’s another department in the city that can make that claim.”

The current leaders of Coleman Advocates said they began hearing from City Hall insiders in November that Brodkin had been fired, according to director N’Tanya Lee.

Newsom wouldn’t discuss the rumors with the nonprofit or The Examiner.

“She’s extraordinarily talented, and I like having talented people around me,” Newsom told the Examiner in December.

In the wake of Brodkin’s dismissal, Lee has launched talks with Newsom’s staff about protecting the Children’s Fund — one of a smorgasbord of budget set-asides the mayor has criticized as limiting The City’s budget-balancing options.

“Our fear is that the Children’s Fund will be raided,” Lee said. “With [Brodkin] gone, we fear that [Newsom] will focus on his political ambitions over protecting the safety net for kids.”

Newsom has appointed Brodkin director of the New Day for Learning initiative, a San Francisco-based organization to connect youth with in-school and after-school services.

Deputy DCYF director Maria Su will immediately take over as acting director of the department, according to Arellano.

Temporary leaders
Several City departments are currently headed by “acting” or “interim” directors, including:
Recreation and Park Department: Jared Blumenfeld
Animal Care and Control: Rebecca Katz
Department of Building Inspection: Vivian Day
Department of Emergency Management: Vicky Hennessy
Department of the Environment: David Assmann
Office of Small Business: Regina Dick-Endrizzi
Department of Children, Youth and Families: Maria Su
San Francisco Zoo*: Tanya Peterson
* Not a city department, but receives city funds and is operated on city-owned land

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 29, 2009 at 5:31 AM

Expulsion rate at SFUSD climbs

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 23, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — More San Francisco public school students have been expelled since August than in the entire 2007-08 school year, and parents and city leaders are questioning whether the school district is following state laws when disciplining kids.

Between August and December, the San Francisco Unified School District received 81 expulsion requests from schools and expelled 16 students.

The majority of cases were dismissed or referred for counseling, Ricky Jones, the school district’s director of pupil services, said Thursday at a joint meeting of members of the Board of Supervisors and Board of Education.

In 2007-08, 97 students were recommended for expulsion and 11 were expelled. In 2006-07, 79 were recommended and 16 were expelled, Jones said.

“We’re seeing more challenged kids, and times are just tougher,” said Trish Bascom, head of student support services for the school district. “We’re also identifying problems with students sooner, and identifying services for them.”

At the same time, parents say their children missed months of classes while waiting for their expulsion hearings to take place — part of the process of determining whether a student will be permanently kicked out of school.

In Thursday’s hearing on the expulsion process, Jones said his short-staffed office is struggling to handle disciplinary requests quickly. The committee took no action and has no authority with the school district.

State law requires students to be expelled for possessing weapons, selling drugs, attempting or committing sexual assault or possessing an explosive, and recommends expulsion for many other violent acts, according to Jones.

Two parents, Todd Waterman and Ian Hadley, said their sons have been suspended from school for several weeks for nonviolent offenses, and both expulsion case have yet to receive hearings.

“We’ve seen a shift in the past semester, more severe discipline for minor practices,” said Lauren Brady Blalock, an attorney with Legal Services for Children, which represents parents in discipline cases.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 23, 2009 at 5:43 AM

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.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 22, 2009 at 5:48 AM