SF panel advocates classrooms, not courtrooms for students 

click to enlarge Students who are poor, minority, disabled or identify as LGBT are more likely to be suspended or expelled for exhibiting willful defiance, said panelists at an event last week.
  • Students who are poor, minority, disabled or identify as LGBT are more likely to be suspended or expelled for exhibiting willful defiance, said panelists at an event last week.
The first instinct of a teacher faced with a disobedient student might be to punish that child, possibly through suspension or in more extreme cases, expulsion.

But that’s often an ineffective response as well as one of the leading contributors to a trend within public schools to impose harsh disciplinary policies that significantly increase a student’s likelihood of being incarcerated later in life, often referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” according to a group of panelists at UC Hastings College of the Law.

For years, however, San Francisco schools and city leaders have been taking steps to reduce the number of students who are suspended or commit repeat offenses.

According to the panel, which met Wednesday in anticipation of the 60th anniversary of the landmark desegregation ruling Brown vs. Board of Education, an “alarmingly-disproportionate” number of students who are poor, a minority, disabled or identify as LGBT are more likely to be suspended or expelled for exhibiting willful defiance.

“School suspensions and expulsions are the most reliable predictors of who will be left behind and drop out,” said Nancy Appel, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League, which hosted the panel.

A student who’s been suspended is more than three times more likely to drop out in the first two years of high school than a student who has never been suspended, the league notes.

Additionally, incarceration rates among young adults who dropped out of high school were more than 63 times higher than those of students with college degrees, according to the league.

Black students comprised 10 percent of the San Francisco Unified School District population in 2012-13, but accounted for nearly 50 percent of suspensions and expulsions, district officials said. They also missed an average of 19 more school days annually than their peers.

Despite those numbers, district officials say they remain committed to ending the disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions. SFUSD in February became the second district in California to pass a resolution favoring alternatives to suspensions, including restorative practices, and the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office is the only public defender’s office in the state with a unit devoted to educational advocacy for juveniles who are arrested.

Reversing the “school-to-prison pipeline” is also a priority for the District Attorney’s Office, which last year allocated $130,000 for truancy intervention programs at two high schools and also launched a restorative justice alternative to traditional prosecution.

Officials note that the number of youth incarcerated in The City has decreased dramatically over the years. The public defender’s office issued a moratorium on sending juveniles to the California Youth Authority in 2005, and the number of kids in youth custody has dropped by 50 percent in the last four years, from nearly 140 to around 70.

However, panelists said the work is far from over and schools throughout the state and nationwide need to continue focusing on alternative solutions to suspensions, such as teaching youth how to engage in healthy activities within their school and conflict resolution.

Take a 7-year-old boy who lives in foster care and has experienced “chronic trauma,” said Zabrina Aleguire, one of the panelists and a senior staff attorney at San Francisco-based Legal Services for Children. When Aleguire first started working with the boy, “he’d been suspended more times than I can count,” she said, and would throw desks and hit other children in his class.

But when the boy was placed in a different school where he wasn’t physically restrained after acting out, his behavior improved, Aleguire said.

“He’s now been able to pretty successfully be engaged in regular classroom settings, in an environment that’s figured out ways to create positive reinforcement,” she said.

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for Patch.com, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
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