Unequal discipline: Sacramento City’s black students get kicked out of class way more than their counterparts

Attempts at ‘restorative justice’ have become flashpoint in districtwide labor negotiations

This is an extended version of a story that ran in the September 29, 2016, issue.

In June, the U.S. Department of Education released data showing black students were nearly four times more likely to receive at least one out-of-school suspension than white students. The disparity might actually be worse in the Sacramento City Unified School District, whose black students are particularly likely to be suspended for what’s termed “willful defiance.”

“In Sacramento, we noticed it’s really, really bad,” Black Parallel School Board member Carl Pinkston said during a public forum held last week at Fruit Ridge Elementary School.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association held the September 20 forum ahead of contract talks with the district, set to open October 11. Amid a potentially stacked agenda for negotiations, glaring racial inequities represent one of the more urgent—and contentious—challenges facing teachers and district administrators, who recently killed a disciplinary reform program the union didn’t want.

Meanwhile, Sacramento City’s black students are getting kicked out of class at much higher rates than their peers, the data shows.

According to statistics culled from Ed-Data, a government-associated website covering California’s K-12 educational system, black students received 49.9 percent of out-of-school suspensions even though they accounted for roughly one-sixth of the district’s 46,868 students.

Black students also remain far more likely to receive tougher punishments. For instance, Sacramento City schools are increasingly giving in-school rather than out-of-school suspensions for “willful defiance,” a catch-all offense that essentially allows a student to be suspended for having a bad attitude.

In recent years, the district has shifted its disciplinary model to keep more kids in school through in-school suspensions, with Latinos, whites and Asians now more likely to receive in-school suspensions for defiance.

But black students are still more likely to be kicked out of the classroom and at much higher rates. Black students received one out-of-school defiance suspension for every 16.17 black students during the 2014-15 school year.

Black students in Sacramento are about five times as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension for defiance as Latino students, nearly seven times as likely as whites and roughly 30 times as likely as Asians.

The long-term ripples are profound. Pinkston, whose community organization advises the district on issues facing black students, said suspended students are three times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to have contact with police.

Assistant Superintendent of Equity Doug Huscher said he’s aware of the disproportional suspensions for defiance, telling SN&R that “staff judgments” and “implicit bias” played a role.

Huscher and others at the district have touted restorative justice, an alternative to suspension that’s emerged in recent years. New York Times Magazine noted on September 7 that schools with restorative justice pilot programs in Denver and Oakland in the mid-2000s experienced “lowered suspension rates, higher graduation rates, [and] improved school atmosphere.”

Huscher said the district picked three demonstration schools last year—Oak Ridge Elementary School, Will C. Wood Middle School and Luther Burbank High School—to implement restorative justice and have seen positive returns thus far.

“We know we can’t punish, we can’t suspend our way out of this problem,” Huscher said. “It requires some really thoughtful work and a different kind of conversation to change our current predicament.”

All the same, some teachers aren’t rushing to embrace restorative justice.

“I just don’t know a ton about it,” said Kristin Goetz, a physical education teacher at Rosa Parks K-8 School in south Sacramento. “What I do, it’s typically coming from the top down.”

Ahead of the opening of contract talks, union President Nikki Milevsky and district Superintendent Jose Banda released a joint statement September 22 halting SPARK, a disciplinary program the district unveiled April 20 over union objections.

Standing for “Social Emotional Learning, Positive Relationships, Analysis of Data, Restorative Practices, Kindness,” SPARK faced an unfair labor charge from SCTA on August 31.

In its complaint, which SCTA agreed to withdraw, the union alleged that the district had introduced SPARK without it being properly bargained for and that union members had raised concerns about the program at a May 17 meeting with the district.

District spokesman Gabe Ross said SPARK will be shelved for 45 days. Meanwhile, negotiations will proceed with the teachers’ union on a new contract, which expires December 1. “We want this rolled out the right way,” he told SN&R. “We want teachers on-board.”

SPARK was developed by Huscher’s Equity Department, which Milevsky said spends at least $1.5 million annually. The district confirmed this figure as accurate.

“That could have gotten us 15 school sites having $100,000 each to have real alternatives to suspension, to support the classrooms in having the time to do the sort of practices,” Milevsky told SN&R.

Ross replied that a centralized approach allows the department to service all 77 schools in the district.

That work could be expanded to more school sites if voters approve a local parcel tax, Measure G, as well as a state measure on the November ballot, Proposition 55, which could maintain $4 billion in funding for education and prevent the legislature from redirecting funds.

Count Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg as one proponent of restorative justice.

“Restorative justice is about teaching life lessons and making sure that if a young person has run afoul of the community standards that they are held to account, but that there’s healing in the process, both for the person who committed the act and also the victim,” Steinberg told SN&R. “I think it’s very, very powerful when it’s done well.”

Editor’s note: This story has been revised and updated to clarify information provided by district spokesman Gabe Ross.