By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Editor-in-Chief and Maya Pottiger | WORD IN BLACK Data Reporter

Sacramento City Unified School Board member Chinua Rhodes says he was suspended for being late for class while he was a student in the SCUSD system. Rhodes, a father of five, says the high rate of Black student suspensions are happening “because our system is punitive at best.” (OBSERVER photo by Russell Stiger Jr.)

When Chinua Rhodes read “The Capital of Suspensions,” a report revealing that Sacramento schools suspended up to two thirds of their Black male students, he decided to do something about it. In November the community organizer ran successfully for the Sacramento City Unified School Board Area 5 representing south Sacramento.

“I believe in action and doing,” said Rhodes, a 36-year-old father of five. “As a Black man who attended SCUSD since first grade, I was suspended for being five minutes late to class or not having my school materials. I took a bus from Valley High across town to McClatchy High, and I was late to class enough times the teacher sent me to the principal’s office and I was suspended for two days. My father, community organizer Dennis Rhodes, said, ‘They’re going to take away my son’s education for being five minutes late.’”

But until Chinua Rhodes read the report, completed by Sac State grad Dr. Luke Woods and updated last year, he said he never drew a line between his skin color and SCUSD’s “short rope.” 

“These suspensions are happening because our system is punitive at best,” he said. “If your student is misbehaving it’s (considered to be) because of the student, not necessarily because of the way the classroom is structured.”

The truth is that kids who get suspended “are a product of their environment and how people perceive that environment,” Rhodes said. “Systemic racism based on White supremacy impacts all other systems from housing to education, justice, food access and air quality. It’s not like administrators are racist people who want to kick all Black kids out of school, but they have a lack of understanding where kids are coming from.”

The high Black suspension rate triggers what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline for Black men, Rhodes said. “A lot of times our parents see a school calling as if the police are calling: ‘If you’re giving us a call, it’s always about something wrong.’ It usually has to do with something punitive.”

Closing the gap between Black students and others is “often at the top of my mind,” said Rhodes, who was elected on a platform of improving all aspects of life in south Sacramento. Rhodes said he has helped secure a $2.5 million grant to build student resource centers and another $300,000 to address the food desert around Burbank High by creating an urban garden.

Rhodes is among those leading the charge to reform local schools – an effort that includes school boards, administrators, parents, the Sacramento Black Parallel School Board and the Sacramento County Office of Education (SCOE) led by Superintendent Dave Gordon.

Solutions include counselors in each school, classroom strategies that rely on conversation and building trust rather than suspension, ways for students to share their feelings and challenges, and teacher training.

“As elected officials we need to start looking at the whole picture,” Rhodes said. “Bias and implicit bias against students of color has to be worked on 100%. We have to make sure the teachers are updating their training often, that families are getting support, (and) the communities they are living in are beautiful, have access to healthy food, safe places to bring their children and give them a sense of pride. We need to hit all these markers to assure school success.”

The report “was huge in shining a broader light on the SCUSD and its shortcomings,” Rhodes said. The report ranked Elk Grove and Sacramento Unified as California’s first and third worst districts when it comes to disproportionate Black suspensions. The OBSERVER reported Sacramento’s dubious distinction as California’s Black suspension capital July 1.

SCOE Superintendent Gordon, whose agency represents 385 public schools and 13 districts, said the first Capital Suspension Report quickly raised red flags.

“When we learned that in 2016-2017, 14.5% of African American kids had been suspended, we worked with Dora Dome, an African American attorney who has been a leader in training school districts to provide discipline in a more restorative fashion,” rather than taking kids out of school, Gordon said.

Dome, an expert on student discipline, has offered 13 free workshops for teachers and administrators that include anti-bullying strategies and alternatives to suspensions, and one-on-one meetings with educators.

“Things are far from perfect yet, but we have seen in all the districts significant improvements and a lowering of suspension rates for African American students,” Gordon said. “Where Sac City started at 14.6% in 2018-2019, they’re down to 10.3% as of 2020. Elk Grove’s progression has gone from 14.3% to 11.5%, the Twin Rivers District has gone from 15.9% to 12.8% and San Juan has gone from 15.6% to 10.5%.”

Since bullying often leads to suspensions, SCOE has instituted an anti-bullying program starting in elementary school “where a lot of these behaviors are spawned,” Gordon said.

By helping teachers become more culturally competent in working with different racial and ethnic groups, “the expectation would be that teachers would be better equipped to figure out ways to impart discipline different from actually having to exclude students from participating in the classroom,” Gordon said.

If teachers can get students to work better together, “you can tamp down conflict and bullying and keep your class intact and focused on work. Having a group of kids sit outside the principal’s office is not effective or helpful, either,” he added.

Cultural competence includes recognizing that “some of our kids come to school with immediate trauma they’ve experienced in their home lives or the community,” Gordon said. “If you simply ignore that, the kid is much more likely to blow up. Part of that is knowing your students and ways to deescalate. If you’re sensitive to that you’ve got a good chance of calming the student down and functioning in the classroom. Kids go through difficult periods; it’s really no different than working with your own child.”

Gordon, who began his teaching career as a middle school special ed teacher in the Bronx in 1968, said he would invite students to have lunch with him in his classroom, which built trust, understanding and cooperation. “Talk to them and be present for them — it goes a long way.”

Black Students Most Often Suspended for Violent Behavior

Each district treats suspensions somewhat differently, Gordon said. Reasons for suspension include violent incidents resulting in injury, violent incidents with no injury, weapons possession, illicit drugs and defiant behavior.

A Word In Black analysis of four Sacramento-area districts — SCUSD, Elk Grove, Twin Rivers and San Juan — from 2018 through 2020 based on California Department of Education data found that Black students are suspended at much higher rates than other students — 12.5% compared to 4.4% of Latino students and 2.5% of Whites. But the reasons why are generally the same across race and ethnicity. Black students are most often suspended for violence with or without injury, but so are White and Latino students, who also have higher suspension rates for drugs and weapons possession.

To find other ways to keep students in school, SCOE launched a new program last year to put mental health professionals in every school to work with students battling depression and isolation, Gordon said.

To combat racism and implicit or explicit bias, districts are instituting a variety of trainings and workshops “to help teachers and administrators examine themselves and the biases they bring to the table so they can be fair to the kids they are serving,” Gordon said. “It’s a long-term process.”

How and when to train teachers and ensure they get paid for their time are issues constantly under discussion as districts and teachers’ unions wrestle with the issue. One veteran trainer and school administrator, Dr. Darryl White, said, “The easiest change occurs in the leadership — we can’t sit around and wait for the student to change. Some schools don’t manage disciplinary issues or suspension well.” Since there’s a relationship between the number of times a teacher sends a student to the principal’s office and ultimate suspensions, “A teacher can say, ‘I don’t like that kid, I can get rid of that kid’. … There are systems ripe for abuse.”

Dr. White, a former principal at Grant, Luther Burbank and Genesis high schools, as well as several elementary and middle schools, serves as chair of the Black Parallel School Board, a community watchdog organization designed to support all aspects of Black education in Sacramento. It conducts leadership training for 15 high school students with high suspension rates.

One of those students “brought tears to my eyes when she said to us, ‘You taught me how to use my voice. Before, the easiest way to deal with other students was to fight,’” Dr. White recalled. “She fought her way from elementary school to high school and she was always getting suspended. We taught her that her voice was powerful enough to carry the day. We created a safe space for them to talk about microaggressions and other issues.”

Suspending Black Students in Early Grades Starts School-to-Prison Pipeline

The Black suspension studies revealed that the greatest inequities took place in early grades: Black children from kindergarten to third grade in Sacramento County were suspended at a rate almost 10 times higher than the statewide average.

“The way kids are treated in the early years creates a feeling that they are not wanted – feelings that go unresolved,” Dr. White said. “We have kids that already have an attitude about what’s going to happen to them, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Sac Unified and Elk Grove have implemented a range of measures to solve the problem. Early last year, Sac Unified decreed that no K-3 students would be suspended for having “disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties (Education Code section 48900(k).”

Students from grades 4-12 can be suspended if teachers provide documentation they have “intentionally engaged in harassment, threats, or intimidation, directed against school district personnel or pupils, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive … disrupting classwork, creating substantial disorder and invading the rights of either school personnel or pupils by creating an intimidating or hostile educational environment (Education Code section 48900.4).” 

Mental Health Counselors, Teachers, Parents Join Forces to Stop Suspensions

While Sac Unified has slightly reduced its Black suspensions, “the results and numbers remain a grave concern,” said chief communications director Tara Gallegos.

The district has launched a comprehensive plan being piloted at 25 schools to “eliminate punitive discipline and replace it with interventions that are consistent, timely, and appropriate,” including during distance learning, Gallegos said. It begins with anti-bias teacher training.

Before a student is suspended, Sac City schools must try other solutions, including:

  • A conference between school personnel, the student’s parent or guardian, and the student;
  • Referrals to the school counselor, psychologist, social worker, child welfare, attendance personnel, or other support personnel for case management and counseling;
  • Study teams, guidance teams, or other intervention-related teams that assess the behavior, and develop and implement individualized plans to address the behavior in partnership with the student and the student’s parents;
  • Referral for a comprehensive psychosocial or psychoeducational assessment, including for purposes of creating an individualized education program, or a plan adopted pursuant to Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. § 794a);
  • Enrollment in a program for teaching prosocial behavior or anger management;
  • Participation in a restorative justice program;
  • A positive behavior support approach with tiered interventions that occur during the school day;
  • After-school programs that address specific behavioral issues or expose students to positive activities and behaviors, including, but not limited to, those operated in collaboration with local parent and community groups;
  • Community service performed on school grounds or, with written permission of the parent or guardian, off school grounds, during non-school hours (Education Code section 48900.6).

Cesar E. Chavez Intermediate, which had one of the state’s most imbalanced Black suspension rates, has revamped its disciplinary approach from top to bottom, said principal Eracleo Guevara. “These results are painful,” Guevara said. “We have made systemic improvements to ensure that we are meeting the needs of all of our students. We are no longer where we once were, and we do not plan on going back to that place ever again.”

Systemic Racism at the core of Black suspensions

Sac City Unified Superintendent Jorge A. Aguilar, speaking at a professional development workshop on the “Antiracist Classroom,” said the day of reckoning has come, but the journey to fix it is long.

“When racism shows its ugly face, it is our most vulnerable families, our most historically and generationally oppressed who suffer the most,” he said. “We, as educators and leaders positioned to make a difference for our students, continue to address the persistent issues of systemic racism in our district, because of the longstanding impact that it has had on our students and the effects that it will continue to show and manifest for generations to come.”

While it’s easy to call out injustice, racist attitudes and racist behaviors, “it’s much harder to acknowledge and confront our own role in how racism is deeply rooted in the system that we are responsible for overseeing here in Sac City Unified,” Aguilar said. “A culture of White supremacy, evident in our communities and even our district, curriculum, our classrooms, continues to perpetuate inequities for students who are Black, Indigenous, and students of color.

“In our district, specifically, we can see these effects in our disproportionate discipline of Black and Brown students,” Aguilar said, along with an achievement gap that grows ever wider given the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The district instructed its distance learning teachers to not use recurring Zoom meetings; to ask students not to share Zoom links or passwords; to use the waiting room to verify users before admitting them; to mute participants when they enter and disable the private chat; and to report Zoom-bombing or other inappropriate incidents.

Dr. White said teachers can excel, even while struggling with their own biases. He remembers a training in the South where a White teacher was applauded for turning around test scores at one of the lowest-performing schools. “In the middle of the ceremony the teacher broke down all the way to her knees and began sobbing. She later showed the trainer her class notebook. On the very first page she had some words underlined: ‘I can’t help but see n—– when I’m training these kids.’”

That epiphany was the first step in changing that perception, Dr. White said. “Until we change that, things are not going to change.”

Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.