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A second look at the rate of African American suspensions


As an assistant principal with 29 years of experience in South L.A. schools, John Alvarez knows the drill.

Amongst some teachers and administrators in the LAUSD there is a clear ethnic pecking order based on “good minority versus bad minority demonization.” He says, “In the world of schools, Latinos are (regarded as) the quiet ones, they don’t speak the language so you can bamboozle them with worksheets. Black students demand more from their teachers. I’ve heard over and over again, ‘give me all Latino students’ from the weaker teachers. They seem to harbor that racist mentality.”

The racist mentality that Alvarez [not his real name] refers to goes directly to the issue of racial disproportionality in suspensions. In a district that is facing one of its worst fiscal and moral crises in decades, suspension disproportionality underscores the relationship between school cultures that program Black students to fail and the apartheid criminalization of Black youth.

Nonetheless, discussing the micro-politics of race in the classroom is a third-rail taboo to school bureaucrats long accustomed to lumping Black and Brown students together in one dysfunctional pot. The neo-liberal charter school juggernaut, the high stakes testing regime, declining Black enrollment, bulging juvenile detention centers and a negligible Black presence on the Los Angeles school board have essentially marginalized a Black agenda in the LAUSD.

This deficit is set against the backdrop of national data that is crystal clear: Black kids spend more time in the dean’s office, more time being opportunity-transferred to other campuses and more time in and out of juvenile detention facilities, regardless of whether they come from “Leave it to Beaver” homes, foster care or homeless shelters.

Reflecting on her tenure at South L.A. and South Bay schools, Linda Watts, a retired LAUSD administrator, remarked that Black students were routinely sent to the office for “defiance.” On balance, “African Americans go to the dean’s office for less serious offenses than do Latinos and Whites. Whites and Latinos will get counseled and sent back to the classroom. It seems to me that it’s a step to get them out of the classrooms.”

The push-out that Watts sees in the district at large is exemplified by schools like Fairfax High.

With its polyglot racial makeup, Fairfax High has historically had a reputation as one of the more culturally eclectic “artsy” schools. It has a predominantly Latino population and a multiracial mix of Black, White and Asian Pacific Islander students. Yet African Americans at Fairfax were suspended nearly 2 1/2 times their number in the general school population.

According to one former Fairfax teacher, “If you were to happen onto the sporty side of campus during the after-lunch class periods, you would think Fairfax was a 95-percent African American school, given all the students ‘hanging out’ over there…. Not the athletes, as I assume that they were off exercising somewhere, but their ‘friends’ who just don’t go to fifth- and/or sixth-period classes…. It was quite the shocking thing for me to observe…. They are hiding in plain sight.”

What is it about the culture of a school with an 18-percent African American population that makes it acceptable for Black students to “hide in plain sight”? Drawing from her observations about other campuses, Watts emphasized the negative expectations that constantly shape perceptions of Black students in the district.. She notes: “I’ve had meetings with teachers in some of the most heinous circumstances, and they would go off about ‘these Black kids,’ and ‘what are you going to do with these Black kids because I can’t teach in my classroom with these Black kids going out of control.’ Kids would tell me that nothing was expected of them. They weren’t even expected to show up.”

Low expectations for Black students is a familiar theme. Esteemed progressive education activists and scholars like Lisa Delpit, Pedro Noguera and Gloria Ladson-Billings have written extensively about how the culture of low expectations ensnares Black students. What is perhaps most egregious about LAUSD is how even high-performing Black students who consistently defy low expectations are treated.

Weighing in on the suspension crisis, LAUSD Senior Deputy Superintendent Michelle King spoke of a renewed urgency on the part of district head John Deasy to address the issue. The district’s School Wide Positive Behavior Support System (SWPBS) is the linchpin of this strategy.

Central to SWPBS is a data tracking system for referrals, which allegedly forces school administrators to be “accountable” for the kind of disparate treatment that fuels skyrocketing Black suspensions. Instead of the traditional format of written referrals, teachers now submit referrals electronically, using drop-down menus to choose the “offense” of students they are sending out of the classroom. The referral is then sent to the dean’s office as an email.

King says that this represents the district’s effort to “embed a culture of data analysis” into schools. However, collecting data is one thing; evaluating and developing culturally responsive strategies to redress the disparities presented in the data is another.

According to Maisie Chin, executive director of CADRE, a community-based organization comprised of parents, students and legal advocates, “If everyone were to do SWPBS to the letter of LAUSD policy, it would be undergirded by key best practices: behavior intervention, parent engagement and database decision-making.

Parent engagement would involve school-based teams with multiple stakeholders, data evaluation and campus support.” Spotty implementation and the belief of some faculty that data collection could lead to targeted intervention (and ultimately removal) have hindered the system’s roll-out.

William Vanderberg, a history teacher at Foshay and formerly of Crenshaw High School, noted that some teachers “feared that it would identify those who had classroom-management problems and be used punitively.” He believes that the data tracking system merely exacerbates the fact that “teachers aren’t equipped to deal with discipline as professionals.”

In theory, SWPBS provides counseling and intervention for teachers who generate a disproportionate number of suspensions. In reality, few of the veteran teachers and administrators interviewed were aware of any of their colleagues receiving training or intervention.

Alvarez noted that professional development training for “repeat offenders” was minimal. And it is not clear that there are any real consequences for principals who don’t meet SWPBS benchmarks.

Chin stressed that the SWPBS template is “not culturally competent in and of itself.”

There seems a good deal of instructor and faculty resistance to culturally responsive professional development. In some quarters, training that challenges faculty to delve into how systemic social injustice, cultural difference and racial perceptions inform the classroom is caricatured as the either too militant or “Kumbaya” touchy feely.

School administrators may slot culturally responsive trainings for an obligatory two hours for the entire year then move on to more “pressing” district mandates. If there is no leadership around integrating cultural responsiveness into the school and classroom culture, then teachers can easily blow off these sessions, using the time to catch up on grading papers, lesson plans or reading the newspaper.

Many secondary-school educators say that this kind of training has generally gone the way of the dodo bird. Lamenting the flavor-of-the-month inconsistency of the district, Alvarez points out that, “there used to be a big cottage industry for culturally relevant instruction, and now it’s been reduced to just a whisper.”

King acknowledges that there is greater emphasis on cultural responsiveness at the elementary school level as opposed to the middle- and high-school levels. But if teachers are fundamentally ignorant of African American cultural contexts they will be more inclined to exhibit hostility toward Black students who don’t sit in quiet regimented conformity in a traditional classroom where the teacher lectures to students, engages the “brightest” students in Q&A, gives an assignment and fields discipline problems. As King contends, “if you have a more verbal, expressive student and you’re not understanding the (cultural) difference in effect it will disadvantage the student. Defiance could mean anything.”

Award-winning teacher and 43-year veteran of Markham Middle School and King-Drew Medical Magnet, my mother Yvonne Divans Hutchinson concurs, stressing that “there is a tendency to visit the deficiencies of the adult onto the student. If the teacher expects students to learn…and communicates caring and passion for the whole process and involves the students in their learning interactively, then that’s going to be a fairly orderly classroom. This kind of teacher has a sense of her students as a people instead of harboring notions like ‘oh, this disorderly Black student’ needs to be taken out of the classroom.’”

Racial disproportionality in suspensions could be redressed with training on culturally competent classroom management. Yet there is no indication that the district has a serious commitment to it. And if the community doesn’t demand it, the push-out regime will persist.

Throughout her career, Watts implemented a form of peer mediation called Counsel that develops classroom culture based on critical engagement with and respect for cultural differences. For Watts, even “mentioning race in the LAUSD was encoded so as not to offend White teachers.”

King Drew Medical Magnet coordinator Tabitha Thigpen argues that “when you ask people to unmask things like race it makes them uncomfortable because it’s looking at the politics of the district and what drives what we do.”

But the prejudices of White and other non-Black teachers are not the only factor driving disproportionate Black suspensions. South L.A. schools with significant or majority Black faculty and administrators are just as culpable. One Black parent I spoke to at Westchester High believes that there is a deep class schism between Black faculty and administrators and Black students. This may lead them to crack the whip with “defiant” Black youth.

It’s a pattern that was of deep concern to former school board member and activist Genethia Hudley Hayes. In the early 2000s, Hayes mobilized the South L.A. community around the African American Learners Initiative, a comprehensive policy to redress disparities in Black students’ education through culturally responsive instruction, teacher training, curriculum development and parent engagement. Disproportionality at predominantly Black schools like Audubon Middle School, Washington Prep and, to a lesser extent Crenshaw High, illustrates that White supremacy, to paraphrase feminist writer bell hooks, doesn’t need White people to perpetuate and validate it.

Chavonne Taylor, a former Washington Prep student, maintains that, “When you are Black, people often assume you are angry and violent. I remember having to play down my anger a lot no matter how legitimate my feelings were because I knew that me being angry would get me in more trouble than the non-Black kids. I’ve seen Black students get harassed, then when they expressed outrage at the unfair treatment, the student was suspended for their reaction, but no discussion of the unfair treatment. Black males got it the worst.” When it comes to discipline, Watts believes that some Black faculty and administrators have a bootstraps mentality informed by internalized racism. They may automatically “look at African American kids as doing all of the bad things…and they don’t want to be seen as giving these kids special treatment.”

During the 2009-2010 school year, Foshay, Drew and Gompers had the greatest number of disproportionate Black suspensions among all middle schools in the district. Foshay’s Vanderberg pointed out that the school has weathered a turbulent two years. He attributes disproportionality to the myriad challenges the school has faced vis-à-vis a local charter’s siphoning of high-performing students, the increasing demands of special needs and special education students, exploding class sizes and a glut of must-place teachers who bounce from campus to campus.

Foshay is certainly not unique in this regard. Nonetheless, the data suggests that even when controlling for socioeconomic differences, disproportionality still persists.

With Black unemployment skyrocketing to record levels, South L.A. is reeling from the economic devastation of foreclosure, draconian cuts in K-12 and higher education and gutted social welfare services. Thus King-Drew’s Thigpen sees a broader context to the district’s criminalization of Black students. Along with Westchester, Washington Prep, Crenshaw and Dorsey High Schools, King-Drew is one of the few remaining majority Black high schools.

“We need to talk about slavery, we need to talk about race…” Thigpen says. “You look at what’s going on in the country and there are sparks of unrest. When I drive around the community I see packs of boys roaming around doing nothing. There is no structure and no opportunity for them. We cannot sit in our ivory towers and think that it’s not going to impact us.”

Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D. is a senior specialist with the L.A. County Human Relations Commission and the author of “Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars.”