Suspending judgment - Page 2

SFUSD considers alternatives to suspensions that some say unfairly impact students of color

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Guardian photo by Brittany M. Powell

She and her friend looked around, searching for a possible pastry owner nearby. Runners circled around the track in the distance, but no one else was around. The cupcakes met a satisfying fate inside Xochitl's belly. The next morning went decidedly downhill.

As she walked into school, the counselor told her to go home: she was suspended.

"The cupcakes belonged to this girl because it was her birthday," Xochitl said, something she found out only once she was being punished. "They went straight to suspension, they didn't even let me speak."

Restorative practices would have sat her with the birthday girl to explain her mistake and apologize. Maybe she would've bought the girl new cupcakes. That wasn't what happened.

Suspended, Xochitl spent the day at her grandparents' house. Not every suspended student has a safe place to go. Some turn to the streets.

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In October a group of mostly black young students marched to the Board of Education to protest willful defiance suspensions. The group, 100 Percent College Prep Institute, formed in the ashes of violence.

"I drive a school bus for a living, and I had a boy on my bus who was not bad, but not good," said 100 Percent College Prep Institute co-founder Jackie Cohen, speaking with the Guardian as she marched with her students. "When we got back from Christmas break, he wasn't back on the bus. Turns out he decided to 'live that life.' Three days later, I found he was shot and killed."

In some communities the jaws of crime and drugs are forever nipping at their children's heels. A child inside school is safe. Suspensions throw the most vulnerable students into the wild.

"Preventing crime in San Francisco begins with keeping children in the classroom," SFPD Chief Greg Suhr wrote in a letter to the SF Examiner last year. "Proactive policies, such as the 'restorative practices' implemented by the SFUSD, emphasize the importance of building positive relationships while holding kids accountable for their actions."

Black students make up about 10 percent of SFUSD's population, but they represented 46 percent of SFUSD's total suspensions in 2012, according to SFUSD data. Latino students represented about 30 percent of suspensions.

The racial disparity of suspensions mirror the disparity of incarceration. A study by nonprofit group The Advancement Project found that in 2002, African American youths made up 16 percent of the juvenile population but were 43 percent of juvenile arrests.

Xochitl sees that with her own eyes every day.

"Some kids turn to the streets, you know. I've seen people younger than me go to jail," Xochitl said. "I was on Instagram and saw a friend locked up. I knew that girl, she's in my PE class."

It's one of our country's many shameful open secrets. Nearly half of all adult men in the United States serving life sentences are African Americans, and one in six is Latino, according to data from the nonprofit group the Sentencing Project.

Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, all trapped in a cycle of poverty to prisons that for some starts at school.

"As a school district, when that's staring us in the face, we can't not do something about it," Haney said.

Sometimes it begins when students are still learning their ABC's.

Bruises inside and out

Restorative Practices are implemented from kindergarten to high school.

"If [students] don't have a sense of belonging... that's going to prevent schools from addressing behavior," Kerry Berkowitz, the district's program administrator of Restorative Practices, told us. The seeds of mistrust are planted when students are young.

Desamuel could not yet spell the world "police" when he first met them.