‘Crisis’ of conscience

Task force focused on African-American student achievement intended to be first step in district’s response to worst-in-the-state rates

Nearly 100 people, mostly parents of black students and community organizers, filed into a C.K. McClatchy High School auditorium last month to see how Sacramento City Unified School District would respond to disparities in suspension rates for black youth.

The September 12 town hall was one of the district’s attempts at addressing the discriminatory patterns first reported by this newspaper in June in conjunction with the release of “The Capitol of Suspensions: Examining the Racial Exclusion of Black Males in Sacramento County,” a joint research brief from San Diego State University and UCLA. The researchers’ numbers showed that black boys in SCUSD were suspended more than in any other district in the state—including Los Angeles, the second largest district in the country. Superintendent Jorge Aguilar said the numbers were disappointing, but hopes it leads to change.

“I’m convinced that if we can take our system and disrupt it in a way that we’re very clear in what the community and boardroom want translates into the classroom, then we will see success,” Aguilar said toward the end of the event.

Black boys in SCUSD were suspended 1,859 times in 2016, which is the most recent school year data available. That’s a 20.7 percent suspension rate. In comparison, the suspension rates for white, Latino and Asian boys were 5.4 percent, 7.6 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively.

In August, the school board assembled an African American Achievement Initiative task force to help address issues affecting black students. At least one person in the auditorium took issue with the district’s approach, asking why the district thinks a task force would solve the issues rather than direct action. School board president Jessie Ryan said it’s intended to be the start of the solution to what she called a “crisis,” not the end of one.

“I did not—and my board of education feels strongly about this as well—want to, as a system, execute a strategy without involving the very stakeholders that it affects the most,” Ryan said.

Ryan added that the district needs to act with urgency and not wait for Gov. Jerry Brown to sign legislation regarding discriminatory policies like willful defiance. Willful defiance is an ambiguous policy that acts as a catch-all justification for suspending students. According to Department of Education data, black children accounted for 32 percent of all willful defiance suspensions in the county in 2016.

“You have heard me call for an end to our willful defiance policy,” Ryan said. “And yet, there’s a feeling that we can’t move, right? Because it’s too difficult to undertake something so audacious without a mandate. Well, the community is the mandate."