Oakland Local

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Oakland Suspends Fewer African-American Males This Year, More Work Needed

Oakland Local

Last year, African American students accounted for 63 percent of all suspensions even though they make up only 32 percent of Oakland school district's population.

Working under a resolution with federal civil rights authorities to correct racial disparities in how it disciplines students, the Oakland Unified School District has made some progress this year in reducing suspensions of African-American students. 

But still, one in 10 African-American boys in the district has been suspended this academic year, while fewer than 2 percent of Latino boys, 1 percent of white boys and 0.3 percent of Asian boys have been suspended. Last year 14.3 percent of African-American boys were suspended and the year before, 18 percent were suspended.  

That 2010-11 statistic, unearthed by the Urban Strategies Council of Oakland last year, led to the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights to launch an investigation into OUSD policies. Last September, OUSD's board of education entered a Voluntary Resolution Agreement with the civil rights office to take actions to eradicate unequal treatment in discipline policies.  

Since then it has adopted a restorative justice framework and brought in restorative justice trainers who set up programs at some schools and trained teachers at others. But according to testimony during Wednesday night's school board meeting, such resources are stretched tightly across the district of 101 schools.  

"We've had meetings around school culture and climate ... with a particular focus on the experience of African-American males," said Chris Chatmon, executive director of OUSD's Office of African American Male Achievement. "What became very clear was the need for explicit cultural bias programs." He added that for much of society including many teachers, "their training about African-American culture is through the media," and those images are generally biased and inaccurate, he said. 

Barb McClung, coordinator of Behavioral Health for OUSD, said the school district has developed a plan to work on school culture and "unconscious bias" by some teachers and staff brought on in part by lack of cultural training and "lack of understanding of trauma" that some children in Oakland experience around neighborhood violence and abuse at home.

"In Oakland, we are developing strategies that interrupt the pipeline from referrals to out-of-school suspensions to expulsions to sometimes incarceration," she said. It developed a tiered policy that starts with professional development around cultural awareness and social and emotional learning, followed by restorative justice program support at each school and lastly availability of case managers.

There has been noticeable improvement, she and others said. In 19 schools, including eight high schools and four middle schools, suspensions are down by at least 20 percent year to year.

Principals of some schools that had big improvements attended the school board meeting.

Claremont Middle School Principals Ronald and Reginald Richardson said what worked to lower suspensions at their school was building relationships. Suspensions were used to discipline 7 percent of students at this year compared with 35 percent last year. Among African American boys, 16 percent have been suspended this year while last year 53 percent - more than half - of African American boys received a suspension.

The Richardsons joined Claremont as co-principals in September.

"Building relationships with our students, our parents, our teachers and community, that is our number one strategy," Ron Richardson said. "We are huge on students' voices. We listen to our students, we listen to our parents and we listen to our teachers."

They said that in discipline and learning readiness, it is often important for staff to find out what is happening in a child's life to assess a situation.

For instance, "Students come to school with chemical imbalances, malnourished" from not eating full meals but only snack food such as chips, Reginald Richardson said. "They will tell me, 'Mr. Richardson, I haven't eaten dinner or breakfast,'" he said.

For students who are hungry "what comes out is irritable reactions to teachers or to myself or to other students. They are irritable because they are hungry," he said.    

So as principals, the Richardsons have taken to keeping nutritious food in their offices to hand out to students who have trouble coping. Most OUSD schools also offer breakfast and lunch.

The point, he said, is to find out the root of a problem before resorting to harsh discipline like suspension.

"If you get suspended, the problem is not resolved. We have to find the root of the problem, then we can uproot it," he said. "I guarantee you that nine times out of 10 the problems will not recur."

Amy Corozza, principal of Coliseum College Prep Academy middle school and high school, said it is difficult to get students ready for college if they are not in the classroom.

"It is such a huge effort to support kids and really engaging them to become college ready," Corozza said. "To get them ready you need them in the classroom you can't have them suspended."

Coliseum Prep reduced suspensions to 3 percent of students so far this academic year compared with 13 percent last year. Ten percent of its African American boys have been suspended this year but that is an improvement from last year when 49 percent of African American boys were suspended from Coliseum Prep. 

"To deal with bullying and difficult behavior, you have to get out ahead of that." She said her school is doing so by communicating what it expects of students in behavior and academics.

"A lot of kids need a lot of conversations," Corozza said. If the message is consistent across conversations from various adult leaders in a school, students will respond, she said.

OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith said student and teachers and the district itself are laboring under the stress of Oakland's violence. Last year, 131 homicides occurred in Oaklnad.  

"Oakland is actually the third most violent city in the nation," he said. "I have tremendous respect for teachers, building relationships and for students. A number of our students struggle just to get to and from school," and remain safe. "The city is distressed and we need to recognize that."

Smith said students are getting shot and enduring the pain of knowing others have been shot.

"We are trying to change the conditions and situations we control and reaching out as far as we can" to help change conditions outside of school, he said. He added that OUSD is serving "breakfast, lunch and dinner" to many students or some 80,000 meals a year.


Source: Oakland Local []

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