SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- An ABC7 data journalism analysis of K-12 school discipline numbers found drastic differences in which students get suspended and how often.
The majority of schools in our largest districts are facing discipline practices that disproportionately suspend Black and Latino students.
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During the 2017-2018 school year (the most recent data available), two-thirds of schools in the San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Jose, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara metro areas reported unequal discipline practices, according to the Department of Education.
"Nobody has ever taken the time to actually get to know who I am," Bay Area teen Lanyiah Green, who has faced excessive discipline since the third grade, told ABC7 News earlier this year. "They just pushed me out without even trying to understand me. I feel like being a Black girl is just all around hard."
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Green has been pushed out of Pittsburg Unified School District's traditional classroom environment and into an independent study program after being excessively disciplined by educators.
"They suspended her 23 times in one year, which is way over the legal limit of suspensions," Jessica Black, Green's mother, said.
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"This should be a more urgent issue on folks' agendas than I think it has been," said Christopher Nellum, PhD, Executive Director of Education Trust West.
In the South Bay, 83% of San Jose Unified Schools are dealing with discipline inequity. Black students were 10 times as likely to be suspended and miss class as a result. Latino students were twice as likely to be suspended than white students.
In Oakland Unified, 79% of schools reported inequity. Black students were 10 times as likely to be suspended and Latino students were twice as likely to be suspended.
According to OUSD spokesperson John Sasaki, "Comparing successive years to 2018-19 may not be possible, as 2019-20 was interrupted by the pandemic in March of 2020 and 2020-21 was in full distance learning for most of the year. We look forward to seeing our improvements in the 2021-22 school year. One additional issue is that it's hard to make fully fleshed out comparisons of discipline inequity at many OUSD schools as some of them have very few, if any, white students. All that said, we as a district have been focused on reducing disproportionalities by doing the following:
- Discipline & Intervention Matrix that gives clear guidance and expectation around discipline (what can and cannot be reasons for suspensions, and maximum number of days)
- Emphasis on Restorative practices as opposed to exclusionary practices
- Professional development for all OUSD staff on anti-racist / anti-bias training."
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In the San Francisco Unified School District, half of schools reported over-discipling students of color. Black students were 18 times more likely to miss school days due to suspension than white students. Latino students were four times as likely to face suspension. Despite only making up about 7% of the student population, Black students within the district were suspended for a total of 1,743 days. However, white students account for about 15% of the student population and were suspended for a total of 207 days.
According to SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick, "In the 2019-2020 school year, 10.56% of African American students were suspended and 3.25% of Hispanic/Latino students were suspended (per the SFUSD public data dashboard)."
During the same timeframe, less than 2% of white SFUSD middle and high schoolers were suspended.
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SFUSD's statement continued:
"At SFUSD we strongly believe that students belong in school. We focus on community building and authentic partnership with our families and students, and building welcoming and joyful spaces. We are committed to restorative practices, positive behavior interventions and supports, and healing informed practices from an anti-racist lens. Per Board policy, suspension is a last resort and often only utilized when legally mandated. In 2014 the Board of Education voted to establish a safe and supportive schools policy. Put simply, at SFUSD we strongly believe that students belong in school."
To see if your child's school is reporting discipline disparity, search the school's name in the table below:
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Discipline disparities have existed for decades, according to Department of Education data.
These students are pushed out of traditional classes, which leads to learning loss and ultimately becomes a fast track on the school-to-prison pipeline.
"We've seen large disparities between Black and white students and suspension rates since schools desegregated. It's a societal problem," said Gregory Walton, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University.
Walton said these outcomes can be improved and his research proves it.
"You can do interventions to address the student, you can do interventions to address the teacher, you can do interventions that address both of them," he said.
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Walton, alongside U.C. Berkeley researchers, studied five South Bay middle schools where their team engaged teachers with online instruction aimed at addressing disparities in discipline. The teachers were encouraged to center empathy and restorative justice tactics to correct students' behavior instead of using disciplinary practices like suspension.
"This intervention delivered to math teachers in middle school reduced the number of suspensions that kids had by about 50%," said Walton.
He said the research suggests empathy and understanding lead to stronger bonds between teachers and students, which ultimately made for better education outcomes.
Nellum encourages schools to invest in building relationships as teachers welcome students back to the classroom for the first time in a year and a half.
"We think there needs to be dedicated space for rebuilding relationships and not just letting it happen," he said. "Schools should be intentional about making it happen."
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Groups like the Black Organizing Project pushing for equity in Oakland Unified Schools point to the need to recruit a more diverse teaching staff as a means to cut down on excessive discipline. They want to ensure teachers are representative of the students they teach and those who are not of the same race or ethnicity as their students are equipped with the tools to understand and help each unique student succeed.
Recruitment and hiring of more diverse staff take time, but Walton encourages districts to start where they can. This means bringing empathy into the classroom on day one, especially after a tough stretch of remote learning during the pandemic.