Why is Sacramento failing its black students?

Study reveals that Sacramento City Unified School District has suspended more black boys than any other district in the state

Levi Beckwith’s first two suspensions happened when he was in preschool. According to a new research brief, his story isn’t unique.

Levi Beckwith’s first two suspensions happened when he was in preschool. According to a new research brief, his story isn’t unique.

Photos by Kris Hooks

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

Levi Beckwith is too young to remember much about the first time he was kicked out of a classroom. It happened four years ago when he was in preschool at Woodlake Elementary School in the Twin Rivers Unified School District. Now 8, Levi recalls being removed from class a second time that year, though he can’t say why.

His mother, Tyffani Beckwith, remembers both suspensions vividly.

“It was after [Levi] telling his teacher several times that he was being teased and bullied,” Tyffani said.

Levi’s teacher didn’t intervene, his mother says, and Levi resorted to punching his classmate. He was sent home for several days. Later that year, Levi was suspended again, this time for being disruptive, something Tyffani says could’ve been avoided had the school called her.

“He’s in the second grade now,” Tyffani said, looking at her son sitting quietly next to her. “This is the first year of school that he has not gotten suspended—not once.”

Suspensions are frequent in Sacramento County school districts, especially for black boys like Levi.

According to researchers from San Diego State University and University of California, Los Angeles, Sacramento schools disproportionately suspend black boys. The researchers’ new study, “The Capitol of Suspensions: Examining the Racial Exclusion of Black Males in Sacramento County,” revealed that the schools with the worst record are right here in the state capital: The Sacramento City Unified School District has suspended more black boys than any other district in the state—including Los Angeles’ much larger one. Three other local districts are in the undesirable top 20 for disproportionate suspensions.

While the research brief didn’t examine what behavior preceded the suspensions, other studies have shown that black boys are disciplined more harshly than classmates of other races or ethnicities for the same minor transgressions.

“What we find as a pattern is that when black boys do things that are normal, it’s viewed as criminal,” said San Diego State education professor J. Luke Wood, one of the authors of the new report. “When white children do things that are normal, it’s viewed as just that—normal.”

Maybe you’ve heard of the school-to-prison pipeline? This is how it gets built, Wood says: on the backs of little black boys who are told from an early age that they are unfit for society. According to the figures, that message is loudest in Sacramento County classrooms.

Sacramento schools by the numbers

Black boys in the county’s four largest districts—Sacramento City Unified, Elk Grove Unified, Twin Rivers Unified and San Juan Unified—were suspended more than 5,600 times in the 2016-17 school year, according to the research brief. These figures mean black boys in Sacramento County are 5.4 times more likely to be kicked out of class than the statewide average.

At Levi’s school, the disparity is no different. Tyffani recalls once walking into the school’s office and seeing only black children in trouble. Since that day, she has believed the suspension rate is higher for black males at Woodlake.

She’s right.

According to an SN&R review of California Department of Education data, Woodlake Elementary had 95 total suspensions in 2016-17. Nearly half of those were black boys.

“That school has always made me feel like they don’t care about us,” Tyffani said. “We’re just here to fill their seats and their classrooms, and that’s it.”

Despite representing 12 percent of the total enrollment, black students account for nearly 35 percent of the county’s total suspensions, Department of Education data shows. Black boys specifically represent 6.3 percent of the county’s enrollment and account for 25.2 percent of the county’s total suspensions. The data reveals “the bleak educational conditions that some Black males in Sacramento County must navigate,” states the research brief, which was commissioned by the NAACP’s Sacramento chapter. “It is clear that some districts are far too reliant upon suspension as a form of discipline.”

Two California school districts recently settled lawsuits over their exclusionary disciplinary practices. In May, Modesto City Schools reached an agreement with a coalition of students, parents and advocacy groups who claimed black students were nearly four times more likely to be suspended in that district. Last year, Kern High School District settled a case after advocates claimed Latino and black students were expelled and suspended at higher rates. The district reportedly paid $670,000 to the families and was required to hold community forums about suspensions. But the California school district with the worst suspension rate for black students is almost 300 miles north of Kern County.

At Sacramento City Unified, black boys were suspended 1,859 times in 2016, which is the most recent school year the state’s Department of Education has data on. That’s equal to 20.7 percent of all black male students in the district. By comparison, suspension rates in the district were 5.4 percent for white boys, 7.6 percent for Latino boys and 2.2 percent for Asian boys.

Elk Grove Unified, the fifth largest district by enrollment in California, had the second most suspensions for black males in the county, with 1,476 during the 2016 school year. The district’s 16.5 percent suspension rate for black males is the lowest in Sacramento, but still higher than the state’s 5.2 percent average for all male students.

Twin Rivers Unified, the district in which Levi is enrolled, has a 20.1 percent suspension rate for black boys. At San Juan Unified, it’s 19.3 percent.

Of the four smallest districts in the county—Natomas, Folsom-Cordova, Center and River Delta—only Center and Natomas hold suspension rates lower than the county’s 19.5 percent for black boys.

Throughout the county, suspension rates for white, Latino and Asian males are 6.6, 7.8 and 2.4 percent, respectively.

A different approach

By comparison, Los Angeles Unified School District, which is the second largest district in the United States with over 620,000 enrolled students, suspended 1,107 black boys during the 2016 school year—only 2.9 percent of its black male students.

Darryl White, of Sacramento’s Black Parallel School Board, says local schools should reform their suspension policies.

Sacramento City Unified, which is only the third largest district in Sacramento County, has 580,000 less students, but suspends substantially more black boys, and at a higher rate.

According to Darryl White of Sacramento’s Black Parallel School Board, a volunteer organization that monitors the city’s district, the difference between the two districts can be attributed to, among other things, “willful defiance"—a vague offense that has been criticized for years as being a catch-all to evict students for any behavior. Black students are indeed overrepresented in local willful defiance suspensions, accounting for 32 percent of them in the county in 2016, Department of Education data shows.

“We know that most suspensions come out of [willful defiance], because it’s subjective,” White explained. “Teachers and administrators can, almost for any reason, suspend a kid.”

Those reasons often stem from implicit racial biases of teachers and administrators, studies show. Implicit bias is a decades-old concept that people develop subtle, subconscious prejudices by absorbing stereotypes and bigotry through culture and media. But don’t discount the other kind of bias, Wood says.

“With this issue there are two different types of educators: There are the ones who are biased and simply don’t know it, but don’t have bad hearts,” Wood explained. “And then there’s another group that is simply just racist. You have to deal with those groups very differently. That’s the complexity of this.”

Wood’s colleague and coauthor, UCLA education professor Tyrone C. Howard, has worked to eliminate the kind of zero-tolerance policies that are meted out disproportionately against students of color.

“From a very young age, far too many black boys and young men are being told, in effect, to get out, and are excluded from the school and classroom,” Howard, the director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA, said in a statement. “It’s an unfair practice with serious consequences for learning and achievement and future success, and it needs to stop.”

In 2013, the L.A. Unified school board eliminated suspensions and expulsions for willful defiance. The number of suspensions dropped drastically. One year before the vote, students were suspended more than 12,000 times. The following year, that number fell to just below 8,300.

In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill eliminating only expulsions for willful defiance, but left it up to districts to pursue broader reforms. Few did. The bill did, however, get rid of willful-defiance suspensions for children in kindergarten to third grade. That bill expires on December 31. The legislation had an impact in its narrowly tailored form: The number of suspensions fell dramatically for black students in kindergarten through third grade—though suspension rates remained the same for all other grade levels.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner is hoping to replace the expiring law with a farther-reaching version. The Berkeley Democrat authored Senate Bill 607, which would ban the use of willful-defiance suspensions across all grade levels in the state. It’s the third attempt in recent years to rid school districts of a rule that has proven to be disproportionately damaging to students of color. In 2012, Brown vetoed a similar bill, Assembly Bill 2242, citing local control as his reasoning.

“It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom,” he said then.

Unlike L.A. Unified, which used that discretion to end willful-defiance suspensions across the board, Twin Rivers Unified’s director of student services, Rudy Puente, claims the district’s hands are tied.

Willful defiance “is on the legislative books,” he said. “We have to obey the law.”

While no district in Sacramento County has yet proposed eliminating willful defiance as an ambiguous justification for discipline, all of them agree that the suspension rates are egregious, and most say they have a plan to address the issue.

Sacramento County teachers don’t reflect the diversity of their classrooms, which experts say can influence disciplinary choices.

Restorative justice, restoring faith

According to Sac City Unified spokesperson Alex Barrios, the district, like most others in the county, is beginning to take a restorative justice approach to discipline to “ensure that our system is more focused on helping students understand how their actions impact others and holding them accountable for those actions, rather than just punishing them.”

Restorative justice is about keeping kids in their classrooms when they act out. Instead of booting them to the principal’s office or out of the school, the philosophy calls for confronting students’ issues through mediated talking sessions and understanding life circumstances that may contribute to their behavior, like hunger, housing insecurity or community trauma.

The district created an Equity Office to find new ways to discipline more appropriately. Out of the office came the collaborative SPARK program, which stands for “social-emotional learning, positive relationships, analysis of data, restorative practices and kindness.” Evaluations from the summer 2016 SPARK training workshop showed instructors who took part left energized to affect change, but also felt frustrated about the lack of support or specifics over the years.

“I’ve been in SCUSD for 20 years, and it’s the same speech,” one participant wrote following the conference. “I understand there is implicit bias. I want to help my students, but the conversation never goes beyond the fact that implicit bias exists. What specific things can my school do to include and support all of our students? The first step is being aware that there is a problem, but then what? The workshops never get past the first step.”

Wood suggests that one specific tool the district could adopt would be setting up video cameras in classrooms and reviewing the recordings with teachers in a supportive setting, similar to how professional athletes review tapes following their games to learn from their decisions.

“Teachers need game film, and they need to be able to have an understanding of what they’re doing better,” Wood said. “This doesn’t mean that they’re bad people. But good people can still do harmful things.”

White said the Black Parallel School Board pushed the district to create the Equity Office and helped develop the SPARK program, but has been disappointed with its lack of progress.

Representatives from other school districts also say they recognize the problem and that they are working to reduce the disparate disciplinary outcomes through social-emotional learning and restorative justice systems.

Folsom-Cordova Unified communications director Daniel Thigpen said the district hired Channa Cook-Harvey, an educator and researcher, as its new director of social emotional learning. Cook-Harvey will help “build on our efforts to support our teachers and students in ways to reduce disproportionality in suspensions,” Thigpen said.

San Juan Unified spokesperson Raj Rai said the district has hired “28 additional school social workers, school counselors and school mental health therapists to work with student behavior and social-emotional growth.” Pinkerton added that the district eliminated its zero-tolerance policy.

And, although Elk Grove Unified administrators maintain discretion to discipline students as they see fit, communications director Xanthi Pinkerton said the district is currently reviewing the impact of willful defiance to further “reduce the suspension rate for African-American students while maintaining a safe and productive learning environment for all students and staff.” Pinkerton added that the district eliminated its zero-tolerance policy.

But implementing restorative justice models at schools might not be a panacea, cautions Wood, who is also co-director of the Community College Equity Assessment Lab, a national research laboratory at his university that focuses on underserved students of color. From his experience, Wood says, restorative justice models work for the students who were born into them. But for kids who came up in a traditional disciplinary environment of suspensions and expulsions, restorative justice has been less effective at reaching them. Wood fears they’ve already been institutionalized.

In the 2016 school year, black males in the county were nearly 10 times more likely to be suspended in comparison to the state average.

Exiled at an early age

While concrete solutions for decreasing the woeful suspension rates are unclear, the long-term effects they have on students are vivid, according to Wood and his co-authors.

“Prior research has demonstrated that students who are regularly suspended are being tracked into the prison industrial complex, a pattern often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline,” they write. “Thus, while some students are being socialized by schools for college-going and entering into the workforce, others are being socialized for prison. Moreover, research has also shown that those subjected to suspensions are more likely to enter into the permanent underclass and to have a reliance upon social services.”

Kids who are exiled from their classrooms also run the risk of falling behind their peers and never catching up.

“Many of our black males are being suspended. And with our Sacramento data, the biggest disparity is in early childhood,” Wood said. “We’re talking at that point about young children. Think about the effect that has on their perception of school, the value of school and whether or not they should even engage in school.”

White, of the Black Parallel School Board, offers a hypothetical in which an untested kindergarten teacher resorts to removing a disruptive or high-needs student instead of looking at those disruptions as calls for help.

“There’s a chance that that kid could lose a half-year to a full-year of instruction, because the dynamics just simply weren’t there,” White said.

That student then moves on to first grade without being fully prepared. Frustration leads to more outbursts and more suspensions and so on, compounding the problem year after year, classroom after classroom.

There are numbers to support this narrative—and they show that the unequal discipline starts at a crushingly early age.

The suspension rate for black male students in kindergarten through third grade in Sacramento County is nearly 11 percent. Almost half of those suspended children—46 percent—were kicked out of class more than once. Their stories only get worse as they get older. Suspension rates for black boys increase from 23.6 percent in fourth through sixth grades to 28.9 percent in middle school.

“So by the time that kid gets to middle school, he’s three years behind,” White said. “Now the middle school teacher looks at this kid, does a pre-assessment, and you know what they say when they see the kid is behind? There’s something wrong with the kid.”

The high school numbers are no different. Although the suspension rate from middle to high school drops from 28.9 percent to 20.1 percent, experts say the decrease could likely be attributed to attrition—i.e., the students just leave.

“Once you get that ‘bad kid’ label,” White said, “the teachers look at it, other students look at it, and then it puts people in the position that the more you hear it, the more you believe it. So now it’s, ‘Oh, you think I’m really bad? OK, then I can show you how bad I can really be.’ And that kid never recovers from that.”

Since 2012, the suspension rate for black boys in the county has hovered around 20 percent.

A notable 2011 study out of Texas revealed that students who are suspended or expelled from school are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out or land in the juvenile justice system. The study disclosed that 23 percent of students who were suspended were likely to see the inside of a juvenile court.

“Racism as an institution continues to reinvent itself to maintain the status quo,” White observed. “We can no longer just sit back and let kids fail. We have to determine systems that tell us where kids are from grade to grade.”

Escaping the pipeline

Tyffani Beckwith says she will not allow her son Levi or his siblings to fall victim to a trend that leaves black boys behind. Starting next school year, four of her children will be enrolled at a different school in the district: Foothill Oaks Elementary. She’s hoping a fresh start at a new school will be the thing her kids need. But Levi’s suspension record will follow him, branding him as a “bad kid” before he sets foot on a new campus. Whether he’s confronting his bully or just speaking too loudly in class, the data suggests he’s likely to be suspended again because he’s a black boy in Sacramento County.

Compared to Woodlake Elementary’s 23.3 percent suspension rate for black boys, Levi’s new school looks only slightly more promising. According to data, Foothill Oaks has a 14.3 percent suspension rate for black male students.

Professor Wood has a personal connection to this story. As a black kid growing up in Siskiyou County, well before he attended college in Sacramento, Wood says he was suspended more than 40 times while in the fifth grade.

“That’s a lot of times to not be in the classroom” Wood said. “And we see that as a pattern.”

The discriminatory treatment leaves a lasting impression, Wood says. Students internalize the unfairness and have a harder time keeping up with the curriculum. This makes them more likely to be suspended again in the future, compounding their scholastic difficulties.

So how did Wood break from the pipeline track? He says it was a teacher who intervened at a critical time, when Wood stood on the precipice of disassociating from school or embracing it.

“The very following year I had one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” Wood said. “Instead of seeing me as a problem, he saw me as someone who had incredible talents and assets he wanted to invest his time in. … He found what my passion was in school and leveraged that to support my learning in all other areas. So it was real simple—he cared.”

Whether Levi finds that mentor remains to be seen. Despite leaving some of his friends behind, Levi says he’s ready to attend a new school because, “People are mean to me.”

“A lot of people?” Tyffani asks.

Levi nods his head, before saying solemnly, “They’re always yelling at me.”

“Who?” Tyffani asks. “Kids or teachers?”

“Kids,” he says, as he tucks his arms into his long-sleeve shirt.

“They just don’t,” Tyffani starts, looking down at a still quiet Levi, “they don’t care about our little black boys at all. And they show it.”