Suspending judgment

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

Guardian photo by Brittany M. Powell

The Guardian is publishing only the first names of minors and their relatives named in this story, to protect their privacy.

In San Francisco public schools students can be sent home for talking back to a teacher, wearing a hat indoors, or sporting sagging pants. These infractions sound like the daily life of a kid, but the state calls them "willful defiance," a category of suspensions that are nebulous to define at best.

Like the old saying about pornography, teachers say they know it when they see it, but students and parents alike are now calling foul on the practice.

The suspensions are so abundant in the San Francisco Unified School District that a movement has risen up against it. Sending kids home not only is an ineffective punishment, opponents say, it also can lead youth into the criminal justice system.

Now San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Matt Haney is proposing a resolution that would ban willful defiance suspensions in San Francisco schools altogether.

"There will still be situations where we need to send a student home, but willful defiance will not be one of those reasons," he told the Guardian. "Change is hard, complicated, and messy. But we can no longer deal with discipline or interactions with our students in that sort of way."

He plans to introduce the resolution at the Dec. 10 Board of Education meeting, and if it passes, he said full implementation may take until the next school year.

There's a fight to ban willful defiance suspensions statewide as well, but so far it's been stymied. Just last month, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 420, a bill mirroring aspects of Haney's proposal. Those advocating for such a ban say it's an issue of racial justice.

San Francisco's African American and Latino students together suffer 80 percent of willful defiance suspensions, according to SFUSD data. The nonprofit student group Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth decried this statistic as an injustice, supporting the ban.

The San Francisco Board of Education took tentative steps to reduce suspensions as a whole in 2010, voting to introduce a new disciplinary system called Restorative Practices district wide. It's complex, but basically asks students to talk things out in what are called "restorative circles" that include everyone involved in an incident, like a fight.

It's also about changing the culture around discipline. It encourages teachers and students to establish a rapport, turning around the way some schools have practiced authority for decades.

At the time, there was hope. Fast forward three years, and that hope has dwindled.

Early evidence shows that Restorative Practices work better than suspensions, and prevent behavioral problems down the road, too. But out of SFUSD's more than 100 schools, less than half of them started to implement the new reform.

Few schools have fully integrated the change, officials told us. Haney's resolution addresses this with a mandate: SFUSD must implement Restorative Practices throughout the San Francisco school district.

The program is important, proponents say, because the majority of the 55,000 students a year moving through San Francisco schools still face school discipline that can set them way back in school and later may lead to incarceration. And suspensions can be levied for the smallest of infractions.

Cupcakes and justice

Xochitl is a 15-year-old SFUSD sophomore with long brown hair. She watches the TV show Supernatural (Dean is cuter than Sam) and yearns to one day live with her relatives in Nicaragua. Years ago on her middle school playground, she once faced a hungry child's ultimate temptation: Free cupcakes.

The baked goods sat in a box on the cement by the playground, unattended. The frosting sat un-licked, the wrappers unwrapped.