Leroy Gatlin, representative from Causa Justa, speaks along with other youth leaders at a town hall in San Francisco, California, on Oct. 25, 2017. (Audrey Garces/KQED)
The suspension rate of black students in the San Francisco Unified School District increased last year during the fall semester for the first time since the district began a restorative practices program and adopted a policy to curb school suspensions.
SFUSD adopted the Safe and Supportive Schools Policy three years ago to put an emphasis on less punitive and more restorative disciplinary practices that provide encouragement for positive behavior. It was slated to be fully implemented by this school year, but SFUSD did not meet this goal.
SFUSD officials had not commented on the report or the policy's implementation status by the time of publication.
“Although, especially here in San Francisco, the black student population is actually very low, black students are still highly disproportionately targeted in suspensions than anyone else,” said Neva Walker, executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit that advocates for equitable public schools.
Although suspensions went up for students overall in the first semester of 2016 versus 2015, SFUSD’s data reveal black students continue to be the most impacted. Black students experienced an increase of 13 percent for suspensions in that time span, even though their enrollment numbers dropped by 10 percent.
More than 80 people, mostly students from a variety of youth organizations, gathered last week for a town hall to rally youth leadership and discuss the recent data.
The host of the event, Coleman Advocates, encourages youth to organize efforts to achieve equitable public schools and disciplinary practices. The organization, along with 30 partners, launched the Solutions Not Suspensions movement that eventually spearheaded the district’s adoption of the policy in 2014.
“For true change to happen, it has to be you leading us, and us supporting you along the way,” Walker told the students at the meeting. “It’s going to be interesting to see how you all stand and where we go.”
SFUSD saw an initial decline in the number of suspensions overall, and specifically for black students, since adopting the policy in 2014. Fall 2016 is the first fall semester since 2012 that the district has seen an increase in suspensions of black students.
Kevine Boggess, director of policy at Coleman Advocates, said the policy has been only partially implemented at some schools, so they are continuing to push for full implementation to truly shift the dynamic toward making the SFUSD a “community school district.”
“Our assessment is that the school community as a whole wasn’t united enough, and there wasn’t enough communication and understanding and dialogue, to really successfully transform the institution of the school district,” Boggess said.
Leaders also presented data at the town hall meeting that revealed the number of disciplinary referrals for all students has increased every year since 2013-14, since the new policy has been gradually rolled out. Again, black students are disproportionately affected by this disciplinary practice.
In the fall 2016 semester, 4,565 referrals were given to black students. That is more than the total number of black students that attended SFUSD that year.
The most common reason cited for referral was disruption, but Walker suggested this is cause for concern. “Disruption can mean dropping a pen. Disruption can mean you ask the question at the wrong time,” she said.
Black students also made up more than half of on-campus arrests last fall -- 20 total -- while Latinos were the second-highest ethnicity category, totaling seven arrests.
Not Only Here
This is not an issue unique to San Francisco public schools. The ACLU found in a September 2017 study that black students in Missouri are punished in schools at far higher rates than white students.
According to Boggess, youth leadership is key to addressing this, and it starts with making students feel like they matter.
“I would say that most students, and I would even say a lot of parents, don’t feel that their voice is heard,” Boggess said. “They feel forgotten and neglected a lot of times in schools because there’s such big communities it sometimes feels like people fall through the cracks.”
Coleman Advocates has two programs, “Youth Making a Change” and “Parents Making a Change,” which were developed to organize low-income parents and students of color around advocacy causes. The group hopes to plan more events throughout the year like the town hall to build engagement between youth.
“I don’t like to go off of that notion that youth are the future, because youth are the present,” said Violet Vasquez, representative of 5 Elements, speaking at the town hall. “We have the loudest voice, we have the most energy, we have the brightest spirits.”