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State panel tries to chart a new course for young men of color


Perhaps Manual Arts student Joshua Ham said it best when he attempted to walk the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color in California through a day in his school life.

He talked of the police cars around the campus, the helicopter flying overhead, the gates around the campus, searches by school security guards and cops patrolling the grounds. . . .

“How can we truly be expected to achieve at a high academic level when we’re treated more like we’re in prison than in school?” he asked.

Ham hit on at least two of the recurring issues of the hearing–the presence of police on and around school campuses and the feeling of being a prisoner. But there were other issues as well: the high rate of suspensions of boys of color, unfair treatment, and the feeling that youth of color are being railroaded into the criminal justice system.

Youth leader Carlos Gomez of InnerCity Struggle said plainly that young men of color are usually treated with “a lack of respect and made to feel uncomfortable and not appreciated.”

Almost all of the comments depicted a school system and minority young men in crisis. And there was little disagreement from the packed audience at Comrie Hall at the Expo Center near the campus of USC during the hearing on Friday.

Some of the information might prove shocking to the general public. For instance, Bob K. Ross, M.D., of the California Endowment, told the gathering, that this year more men of color will be receiving their GEDs inside prison than from high schools.

Manuel Criollo of the Community Strategy Center called the school system “guilty of undereducation and overincarceration. We need a serious effort to reduce suspensions,” he said, and noted that authorities were guilty of applying “double punishment” in issuing both suspensions as well as tickets for truancy. However, he applauded the recent “pull-back” of a student curfew [truancy] law.

“Remove police from school, from school discipline issues,” said Criollo. “Turn school conduct issues back to the schools.”

The theme of the hearing was “Charting a New Vision for a New California by Investing in Black, Latino and Southeast Asian Boys and Young Men.” The committee was chaired by Assemblyman Sandre R. Swanson, Assemblyman from the 16th district, which includes the Oakland-Alameda area.

He assured the gathering that the Select Committee took “these hearing very seriously. The suggestions you make to us are very important,” he said.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson of the Community Coalition noted that the coalition sees two systems that lead to the criminal justice system: the child foster care system and the education system. “Every time a student gets suspended or expelled their likelihood of dropping out increases tenfold,” he said.

Harris-Dawson said 85 percent of suspensions are in the “category of defiance,” which he said was based largely on the mood of the instructor.

The Rev. Dr. Clyde W. Oden Jr., senior pastor at Bryan Temple A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, warned the panel that they needed to know that there were interests groups “betting millions of dollars that you will fail at ‘charting a new course.

“In fact, they have shamelessly announced that they are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into at least one company that is counting on failure. That company is Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest operator of for-profit prisons. They have sent letters recently to 48 states offering to buy up their prisons as a remedy for ‘challenging corrections budgets.’ In exchange, the company is asking for a 20-year management contract, plus an assurance that the prisons would remain at least 90 percent full.”

Oden said a decision to go forth with such a transaction would be detrimental to the state because the corrections corporation would not only be buying up the prison structures but “but also requiring a guarantee that the state will fill a large prison and continuously pay the corporation taxpayer money to operate the institution for at least two decades.”

LA Unified School District Board President Monica Garcia also noted that the schools are in a crisis. She said in 1968 students walked out of schools demanding a better education, and that need still holds true today.

Lately, she said, graduation rates were up somewhat and suspensions were down, but that is not enough. She put the Black graduation rate at 49 percent and the Latino graduation rate at 55 percent, and said that African American males accounted for 70 percent of the suspensions.
“We want to do the right thing,” said Garcia, speaking for the board. “We need more help. The state must embrace its call for excellence.”

There were several other speakers who raised the same points as well as others, but their comments were far too numerous to include. Still, they all paint a picture of young men of color in trouble and a school system in crisis.

Among the panelists beside Swanson were: Assemblywoman Holly Mitchell, Assemblymen Steven Bradford, Luis Alejo, V. Manuel Perez, Mike Davis and Bob Blumenfield.

The Los Angeles meeting was the second hearing held; the first was in Oakland in January. Two more are planned before year’s end.

According to Swanson, there are a number of issues that have come up such as truancy and disciplinary actions that have prompted evaluation of policies to see the consequences on young men of color.

Other issues that are prompting concern are zero tolerance policies, and what he calls California’s dysfunctional prison system, with its 70 percent recidivism rate.