Suspension reform isn’t so simple

Pub date February 18, 2014

OPINION I wish I could get behind the current campaign to limit public school suspensions (“Suspending judgment, 12/3/13).

The intent is honorable. Any additional attention to the plight of black kids within our schools is laudable. But I’ve always suspected that some would think they’d accomplished something if suspension rates were evened across races, although this would have no more impact on any underlying problems than mandating racially equal grade ratios would eliminate an educational achievement gap.

I’ve also never been confident that all involved understood that removing a disruptive student from a classroom is not done primarily for that student’s benefit, but to allow the rest of the class to carry on without disruption. Unfortunately, I’m now certain that this basic understanding is not shared on the highest levels of the San Francisco Unified School District.   Nationally, the Department of Education finds black students three times more likely to be suspended than whites. Why? An influential 2010 Southern Poverty Law Center publication, Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, suggested “the possibility of conscious or unconscious racial and gender biases at the school level.”

That’s hardly surprising, given the long history of racial prejudice in this country. But is this what’s actually going on?   San Francisco, with a suspension rate mirroring the national, gave an African American 84 and 83 percent of its vote in the last two presidential elections. Comparable statistics are not available for the city’s teachers, but it seems likely they’re at least as liberal as the electorate as a whole. This, and years of experience as a substitute teacher in virtually every subject on every grade level, tells me it’s not teachers’ racial prejudice that’s the issue here, but something much larger — and harder to tackle.   Last December, the San Francisco Chronicle reported the city’s black infant mortality rate was six times that of whites (a figure not totally reliable due to the shrinkage of the city’s black population). Other markers of well-being show similar numbers. In short, the black community in San Francisco — and the nation — lives under considerable stress and, as anyone familiar with schools knows, kids don’t leave their problems at home.  But causes aside, I’ve hoped that the anti-suspension efforts might at least promote useful alternatives. After all, no one sends disruptive kids home because they think it makes them better students; they do it because few schools have the resources to do anything else. An “in-school suspension” would likely be a far better alternative in most cases, but it requires people and space available to deal with those students.  Unfortunately, while focusing on the vagueness of causes for suspensions such as “disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering,” which the SPLC study called “behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent,” the current effort seemingly ignores the need for a classroom free of things like “excessive noise” and “threat.” And it ignores the right of other students to learn in one — students likely from similar circumstances as the kids teachers feel they have to remove.  San Francisco School Board President Sandra Lee Fewer is amending a proposal to ban “willful defiance” suspensions with a mandate to reduce the use of referrals — removing a student from class, but not sending them home — calling them “invisible suspensions.” And SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza says, “We’re talking about culture change. A culture where it’s not okay for an adult to say ‘get out.'”

I think the people at the top might benefit from a little more real life classroom face time.

There is great hesitancy around this issue, probably because of fear that protesting too loudly might mark you as part of the problem — perhaps as a racist. But if we allow an ill-considered effort to become a juggernaut, in the end it will be the most vulnerable students who will suffer.

Tom Gallagher is a substitute teacher who has served on the executive board of the United Educators of San Francisco.