It’s been a problem for decades. Black K-12 students are suspended at a much higher rate than Latino, white or Asian students in schools across the nation. It’s true in Oakland, as well. Oakland Unified School District recently looked at suspensions in the district for the first six months of last school year. Blacks, who make up one-third of OUSD’s enrollment, account for two out every three suspensions in the district.
The trend is most pronounced in high schools, where black students represented 613 of the 875 OUSD high school students suspended between Aug. 31, 2009 and Feb. 28, 2010. That’s 70 percent of all high school suspensions, up from 68 percent during the same period the year before. At Oakland High School, for example, which is 27 percent black, black students represented 68 percent of all suspensions, up from 66 percent the previous year.
“Clearly there is a disparity and some discrimination with some principals,” said Alice Spearman, a member of Oakland Unified’s Governing Board. The data was presented at a meeting of the board’s Safety Committee Tuesday evening.
While California school districts have to report suspensions and expulsions to the state, the numbers aren’t broken down by race. The OUSD figures also show that Latino students are suspended at a rate that’s lower than their representation in the school district. Of the 2,474 students suspended last school year, 584, or 24 percent, were Latino. OUSD’s Latino population has been growing, and it’s now at 35 percent. Suspensions of Latinos are also increasing. In the 2008-09 school year, Latinos made up 21 percent of the district’s suspensions.
Pedro Noguera, a sociology professor at New York University who taught at Lowell Middle School in West Oakland in the 1980s (that campus now contains a Knowledge Is Power Program school and West Oakland Middle School), said that racism is not always at work. He noted that many principals in Oakland are black. Noguera said the problem is often a lack of creativity on the part of educators. “The discipline strategies are not aligned with the educational goals,” said Noguera. Teachers and principals need to recognize that students are misbehaving because they are disengaged from school, he said. Suspension only serves to widen the distance between the classroom and the badly behaved student. Still, the disparity is stubborn and nationwide. OUSD’s suspension numbers mirror national data that the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights gathered nearly a decade ago, finding that black students in elementary and secondary schools accounted for 36 percent of all suspensions, although they were 17 percent of the nation’s K-12 students.
Fixes of the sort recommended by Noguera are difficult to put in place. Four years ago, a group of parents in Los Angeles looked at suspension data very similar to Oakland’s. At public schools in South Los Angeles, black students were 21 percent of enrolled students and 47 percent of suspensions. The parents urged Los Angeles Unified to change its discipline policies to something called School-Wide Positive Behavior Support, which eschewed excluding students from the school community as a form of punishment in favor of modeling good behavior and academic interventions. While studies show such methods work, schools in South Los Angeles have had a hard time putting them into practice. Schools in South Los Angeles continue to suspend black students at an even higher rate than they did four years ago.
In OUSD, 45 percent of the suspensions were for defiance, and 28 percent were for fighting. The suspensions cost OUSD around $420,000 last year in lost revenue. But studies show that the costs are greater for the suspended students. Publications from the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles cite numerous studies showing that suspensions lead to dropouts while doing almost nothing for school safety.