Suspending judgment

Pub date December 3, 2013

The Guardian is publishing only the first names of minors and their relatives named in this story, to protect their privacy.

In San Francisco public schools students can be sent home for talking back to a teacher, wearing a hat indoors, or sporting sagging pants. These infractions sound like the daily life of a kid, but the state calls them “willful defiance,” a category of suspensions that are nebulous to define at best.

Like the old saying about pornography, teachers say they know it when they see it, but students and parents alike are now calling foul on the practice.

The suspensions are so abundant in the San Francisco Unified School District that a movement has risen up against it. Sending kids home not only is an ineffective punishment, opponents say, it also can lead youth into the criminal justice system.

Now San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Matt Haney is proposing a resolution that would ban willful defiance suspensions in San Francisco schools altogether.

“There will still be situations where we need to send a student home, but willful defiance will not be one of those reasons,” he told the Guardian. “Change is hard, complicated, and messy. But we can no longer deal with discipline or interactions with our students in that sort of way.”

He plans to introduce the resolution at the Dec. 10 Board of Education meeting, and if it passes, he said full implementation may take until the next school year.

There’s a fight to ban willful defiance suspensions statewide as well, but so far it’s been stymied. Just last month, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 420, a bill mirroring aspects of Haney’s proposal. Those advocating for such a ban say it’s an issue of racial justice.

San Francisco’s African American and Latino students together suffer 80 percent of willful defiance suspensions, according to SFUSD data. The nonprofit student group Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth decried this statistic as an injustice, supporting the ban.

The San Francisco Board of Education took tentative steps to reduce suspensions as a whole in 2010, voting to introduce a new disciplinary system called Restorative Practices district wide. It’s complex, but basically asks students to talk things out in what are called “restorative circles” that include everyone involved in an incident, like a fight.

It’s also about changing the culture around discipline. It encourages teachers and students to establish a rapport, turning around the way some schools have practiced authority for decades.

At the time, there was hope. Fast forward three years, and that hope has dwindled.

Early evidence shows that Restorative Practices work better than suspensions, and prevent behavioral problems down the road, too. But out of SFUSD’s more than 100 schools, less than half of them started to implement the new reform.

Few schools have fully integrated the change, officials told us. Haney’s resolution addresses this with a mandate: SFUSD must implement Restorative Practices throughout the San Francisco school district.

The program is important, proponents say, because the majority of the 55,000 students a year moving through San Francisco schools still face school discipline that can set them way back in school and later may lead to incarceration. And suspensions can be levied for the smallest of infractions.

Cupcakes and justice

Xochitl is a 15-year-old SFUSD sophomore with long brown hair. She watches the TV show Supernatural (Dean is cuter than Sam) and yearns to one day live with her relatives in Nicaragua. Years ago on her middle school playground, she once faced a hungry child’s ultimate temptation: Free cupcakes.

The baked goods sat in a box on the cement by the playground, unattended. The frosting sat un-licked, the wrappers unwrapped.

She and her friend looked around, searching for a possible pastry owner nearby. Runners circled around the track in the distance, but no one else was around. The cupcakes met a satisfying fate inside Xochitl’s belly. The next morning went decidedly downhill.

As she walked into school, the counselor told her to go home: she was suspended.

“The cupcakes belonged to this girl because it was her birthday,” Xochitl said, something she found out only once she was being punished. “They went straight to suspension, they didn’t even let me speak.”

Restorative practices would have sat her with the birthday girl to explain her mistake and apologize. Maybe she would’ve bought the girl new cupcakes. That wasn’t what happened.

Suspended, Xochitl spent the day at her grandparents’ house. Not every suspended student has a safe place to go. Some turn to the streets.


In October a group of mostly black young students marched to the Board of Education to protest willful defiance suspensions. The group, 100 Percent College Prep Institute, formed in the ashes of violence.

“I drive a school bus for a living, and I had a boy on my bus who was not bad, but not good,” said 100 Percent College Prep Institute co-founder Jackie Cohen, speaking with the Guardian as she marched with her students. “When we got back from Christmas break, he wasn’t back on the bus. Turns out he decided to ‘live that life.’ Three days later, I found he was shot and killed.”

In some communities the jaws of crime and drugs are forever nipping at their children’s heels. A child inside school is safe. Suspensions throw the most vulnerable students into the wild.

“Preventing crime in San Francisco begins with keeping children in the classroom,” SFPD Chief Greg Suhr wrote in a letter to the SF Examiner last year. “Proactive policies, such as the ‘restorative practices’ implemented by the SFUSD, emphasize the importance of building positive relationships while holding kids accountable for their actions.”

Black students make up about 10 percent of SFUSD’s population, but they represented 46 percent of SFUSD’s total suspensions in 2012, according to SFUSD data. Latino students represented about 30 percent of suspensions.

The racial disparity of suspensions mirror the disparity of incarceration. A study by nonprofit group The Advancement Project found that in 2002, African American youths made up 16 percent of the juvenile population but were 43 percent of juvenile arrests.

Xochitl sees that with her own eyes every day.

“Some kids turn to the streets, you know. I’ve seen people younger than me go to jail,” Xochitl said. “I was on Instagram and saw a friend locked up. I knew that girl, she’s in my PE class.”

It’s one of our country’s many shameful open secrets. Nearly half of all adult men in the United States serving life sentences are African Americans, and one in six is Latino, according to data from the nonprofit group the Sentencing Project.

Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all trapped in a cycle of poverty to prisons that for some starts at school.

“As a school district, when that’s staring us in the face, we can’t not do something about it,” Haney said.

Sometimes it begins when students are still learning their ABC’s.

Bruises inside and out

Restorative Practices are implemented from kindergarten to high school.

“If [students] don’t have a sense of belonging… that’s going to prevent schools from addressing behavior,” Kerry Berkowitz, the district’s program administrator of Restorative Practices, told us. The seeds of mistrust are planted when students are young.

Desamuel could not yet spell the world “police” when he first met them.

He was five years old, and as kindergartners sometimes do, he threw a temper tantrum. In the school’s desperation to contain him, officials called the SFPD.

“The police only came one time,” Desamuel, now seven, told the Guardian. Sitting in his San Francisco home with his uncle Lionel, Desamuel sounded ashamed. “But I didn’t go to jail because they only put kids in jail for being bad, like kids taking guns to school.”

The memory angers Desamuel’s uncle, who feels restorative practices would have prevented the misunderstanding. His home is a testament to bridge building.

Lionel, his brothers and mother all pitch in to take care of Desamuel while the boy’s father makes what he calls “a transition.” The home is large by San Francisco standards. Drawings of Spiderman and Batman line the wall, equal in number only to the portraits of their family, most of whom live in the city. There’s a lot of care in Desamuel’s life. That hasn’t stopped his tantrums, though.

The family tried to get him therapy, psychological analysis, anything to help. But as any parent can tell you, sometimes a child just needs love.

Lionel struggled with the school’s administration, and asked them to try less punitive ways of handling his nephew. “I told them to just hug the boy. Their response was ‘it’s hard to hug someone swinging at you.'”

The last time Desamuel fought a student he was tackled to the ground by a school security guard. The now-second grader came home with a bruise on his face.

“When I was bad I hurted the children. I wasn’t supposed to get up, and couldn’t get up off the ground. He took me by the arms and legs,” Desamuel said.

The problem with outsize use of suspensions and punitive action, Berkowitz said, is that it breeds a fear of school that shouldn’t exist. Desamuel is no different.

“I got sent to the office and I had to go to the principal’s office and they talked about me being bad,” Desamuel said. “I think because I make too much trouble I have a lot of problems and they don’t want me to be there.”

Cat Reyes is a history teacher who is now a Restorative Practices coach at Mission High School. She said transformation in behavior is the whole point.

She told the Guardian about a student recorded a fight on film. The two fighting teenagers tried to let the incident go, but with the video online for all to see their pride came between them. If the school suspended the girl who recorded the fight there may never have been resolution. The wounds would fester.

But now the girl will join a restorative circle and explain her actions to those involved in the fight, and their parents. That’s far more daunting to kids than simply going home for a day, Reyes said. It doesn’t just stop at the talk though. “On one end she has to say sorry,” Reyes said. “But now she may go to the media center and create a [movie] about it on our closed circuit TV. The consequence fits the crime.”

As students talk out their differences enemies can become friends, she said. After all, the goal is to correct bad behavior and break destructive cycles. Yet less than half of the schools in SFUSD are employing Restorative Practices.

Slowly but surely

One of the biggest critiques of Restorative Practices is that it removes consequences. That’s the wrong way to look at it, Berkowitz said: “When people say consequences, they mean punishment. We want to work with students to find root causes.”

The numbers back her up: 2,700 SFUSD staff members have trained in Restorative Practices, according to data provided by the district. This consequently led to a strong reduction in suspensions, the district says, from more than 3,000 in 2009 to about 1,800 last year.

SFUSD recognized a good thing when it saw it, growing the Restorative Practices budget from $650,000 in 2009 to $900,000 in 2013.

But only about 25 schools started measurable implementation, Berkowitz said. She put it plainly, saying the program is in its infancy. “Are they ‘there’ yet?” she said. “No.”

“Our team is pretty maxed out,” she said. “To really bring this to scale and implement Restorative Practices, there’d need to be a lot of discussions around that.”

Asked how much she’d need to fully fund the program across all schools, she was evasive. Haney was more direct. When asked if his resolution tied funding to the mandate of implementing Restorative Practices district-wide, he admitted that a funding source hadn’t yet been identified.

“Mostly we hear there needs to be more: more support, more social workers, more people in schools to make this functional,” he said. “It’s a longer term challenge.”

That solution may emerge as the resolution goes through the approval process, but the program faces other problems besides funding.

Teachers have depended on suspensions as a tool for years. Money is one thing, but changing educators’ minds about discipline is another.

The “R” word

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the integration of schools, but in a speech about Vietnam he said something that could apply to the SFUSD today.

“Life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides,” the southern preacher said in one of his last speeches before his death.

There is one issue simmering under this entire debate, festering, unspoken. Why are black and Latino students suspended more than other groups? Is this system inherently racist?

It’s a tough question. Teachers are notoriously underpaid, overworked, under supported, and asked to enforce the newest policies at the drop of a hat. The teachers the Guardian spoke to all described a packed year filled with new methods to learn, all with a common purpose — a love of their profession and a love of their students.

“There’s a hesitancy to talk about race with this,” said Kevin Boggess, civic engagement leader for Coleman Advocates, the group leading the charge for the willful defiance ban.

Nevertheless the question of racism permeates the discussion. Xochitl felt persecuted as one of the few Latinas in a mostly Asian middle school.

In the case of Desamuel, the young black child who had the police called on him at age five, his uncle stressed the need for culturally aware teaching. Lionel said Desamuel was well-behaved when he had an authoritative, elderly black female teacher, but acted up in the hands of substitutes who weren’t black and whom he characterized as “young and new” to teaching. Then again, the principal who called the police to handle Desamuel was herself black.

Norm “Math” Mattox is a former James Lick Middle School math and science teacher, and he said from his perspective as an African American he’s seen the issues Haney’s resolution addresses clear as day.

“My sense is that teachers might be blowing the alarm a little bit too soon as far as their brown and black students are concerned, especially the boys. They don’t know how to manage them,” he said. In his experience, misbehaving children are sent out of the room too soon.

In the short term, suspensions are an expedient tool, but punishment without communication does long lasting damage. “The dynamic between teacher and student did not get resolved inside of the class,” he said.

One SFUSD school tackled the specter of racism head on. Mission High School is at the vanguard of what its principal calls “anti-racist teaching.”

Mission High has a higher African American student college placement rate than many SFUSD schools, a group that struggles to perform elsewhere. And as a designated “newcomer pathway” for new immigrants, the school has 40 percent English language learners.

Mission High’s principal, Eric Guthertz, is energized by the challenge. He revamped the way the school teaches to address race and ethnicity directly.

The geometry teachers use Bayview district planning data to illustrate mathematical lessons, and teachers look at grades by ethnicity and address disparities directly.

Guthertz credited Restorative Practices with lowering the school’s suspensions. SFUSD data shows Mission High’s steady suspension decline, with a 14 percent suspension rate in 2009, before the program started, and down to a 0.4 percent suspension rate by 2012.


Mission High School Principal Eric Guthertz. Guardian photo by Brittany M. Powell

“We’ve deeply embraced Restorative Practices,” he said.

Next week San Francisco will see if the Board of Education will take the same leap Gutherz did. As he is quick to point out, shifting the culture at Mission High School took years.

The Guardian contacted members of the school board, but did not hear back from them before press time to see how they may vote.

Either way, it’s time for SFUSD to change its ways, Haney said. But no matter what side of the matter you fall on, he said, it’s important to remember one thing.

“Everyone involved in this conversation wants to do better by these students,” he said.

The San Francisco Board of Education will vote on the ban of willful defiance suspensions and full implementation of Restorative Practices at their Dec. 10 meeting.