By Stephen Magagnini | OBSERVER Editor-in-Chief

Elk Grove prides itself on diversity and inclusion, so when its school district learned it led the state in Black suspensions in 2018-2019, administrators wanted to know why.

So the district launched an all-out offensive on structural racism. “There are multiple reasons why,” said Mark Cerutti, Deputy Superintendent of Education Services and Schools. “I believe there are disproportionate disciplinary practices and implicit biases and even mindsets that are contributing to it.”

The district is attacking the problem through community programs such as Families of Black Students United (FBSU), site equity counsels, partnerships with parents, mentorships for Black students and diversity training for every district employee. It is reviewing the curriculum and incorporating racial justice in curricular activities such as art exhibits, historical events, and essay and speech competitions.

And it is providing more psychological, academic, emotional and social support to Black students, as well as more opportunities for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, Cerutti said.

Dr. Luke Wood, a California State University, Sacramento, graduate who produced two groundbreaking studies on disproportionate Black suspensions, ranked Sacramento County first in California, led by Elk Grove, which in 2018-19 had eclipsed Sacramento City Unified for first place in Black students suspended, Wood said. “Led by Sac City and Elk Grove, Black suspensions began to metastasize throughout Sacramento, the Capital of Suspensions,” the report read. 

Black students make up 11.8% of Elk Grove’s cumulative enrollment and 33.3% of total suspensions, according to the most recent data reviewed by Word in Black data journalist Maya Pottiger.

Richard Gutierrez, former principal at Valley High, said sometimes students act out “because at home they were experiencing a lot of trauma, or they were homeless or had one parent with no work, or they have to take care of their younger siblings.”

When Gutierrez started at Valley High in 2015, the school had a “zero-tolerance policy,” which meant students were suspended “for any behavior we didn’t want to see on campus. A student who got into a fight on campus was sent home for five days and was not supported on return, or academically.”

Now, the school holds a conference with both parents and connects the students with a wellness counselor who meets with them over time. It also reduced the suspension from five days to two, said Gutierrez, now director of secondary education for the district.

The district is working with the Black Educators Network and with Black student organizations and families to learn how to better support students and address bias through training. “There’s certainly a strong feeling among our staff of color that racism exists in our society and our school district,” said Dr. Mathew Espinosa, an educational equity specialist. Teachers need to learn about microaggressions that make people uncomfortable, as well as cultural differences, he said.

“Many of Black and Latinx students engage in overlapping dialogue in discussions, which might not match our idea of proper ideas in a classroom setting, so it’s privileging those who are waiting to engage and for someone to invite them to speak,” Dr. Espinosa said. “Some teachers who aren’t used to that way of communicating don’t see it as different, they see it as wrong.”

For the student, “it turns into not wanting to be there and acting out, they’re sent out of the room and it escalates from there,” Dr. Espinosa said.

Black students might come to class with something in their hair and are asked to remove it, “and feel disrespected and that turns into an argument and defiance,” Espinosa said. So the district is revising the dress code to reflect diversity. The district is moving from the “right and wrong” paradigm to one recognizing different cultural norms or beliefs, he said.

One of the district’s veteran Black officials, Keith Mims, coordinator of student support and health services, has seen the problem through multiple lenses: as a student, educator and parent. Elk Grove has grown into one of the state’s biggest districts, going from a couple of high schools to nine, with nine middle schools and 44 elementary schools. “Our schools are very diverse in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomics, but we have schools with almost no experience in dealing with Black students,” Mims said.

Things were even worse a decade ago. The number of expulsions went from more than 220 in 2011, greater than 20% of them Black students, to two in 2019, Mims said. The district also has reduced the number of suspensions “when an administrator sends a student home. The other area, which is more challenging and complicated, are class suspensions where a teacher on their own can suspend a student for two days. … It can be something relatively minor like dress or verbal interaction.”

The district and community must provide a lot more support for teachers and students “to move that in the right direction,” Mims said. The district now has nearly 7,000 Black students, the most in Sacramento County.

The district is implementing ongoing mandatory training for all employees “about understanding our own stories of race and bias, and specific practices we can put in place,” Dr. Espinoza said.

“We’ve got to fix this,” Mims added.

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.