Suspending judgment - Page 4

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

Guardian photo by Brittany M. Powell

But only about 25 schools started measurable implementation, Berkowitz said. She put it plainly, saying the program is in its infancy. "Are they 'there' yet?" she said. "No."

"Our team is pretty maxed out," she said. "To really bring this to scale and implement Restorative Practices, there'd need to be a lot of discussions around that."

Asked how much she'd need to fully fund the program across all schools, she was evasive. Haney was more direct. When asked if his resolution tied funding to the mandate of implementing Restorative Practices district-wide, he admitted that a funding source hadn't yet been identified.

"Mostly we hear there needs to be more: more support, more social workers, more people in schools to make this functional," he said. "It's a longer term challenge."

That solution may emerge as the resolution goes through the approval process, but the program faces other problems besides funding.

Teachers have depended on suspensions as a tool for years. Money is one thing, but changing educators' minds about discipline is another.

The "R" word

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the integration of schools, but in a speech about Vietnam he said something that could apply to the SFUSD today.

"Life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides," the southern preacher said in one of his last speeches before his death.

There is one issue simmering under this entire debate, festering, unspoken. Why are black and Latino students suspended more than other groups? Is this system inherently racist?

It's a tough question. Teachers are notoriously underpaid, overworked, under supported, and asked to enforce the newest policies at the drop of a hat. The teachers the Guardian spoke to all described a packed year filled with new methods to learn, all with a common purpose — a love of their profession and a love of their students.

"There's a hesitancy to talk about race with this," said Kevin Boggess, civic engagement leader for Coleman Advocates, the group leading the charge for the willful defiance ban.

Nevertheless the question of racism permeates the discussion. Xochitl felt persecuted as one of the few Latinas in a mostly Asian middle school.

In the case of Desamuel, the young black child who had the police called on him at age five, his uncle stressed the need for culturally aware teaching. Lionel said Desamuel was well-behaved when he had an authoritative, elderly black female teacher, but acted up in the hands of substitutes who weren't black and whom he characterized as "young and new" to teaching. Then again, the principal who called the police to handle Desamuel was herself black.

Norm "Math" Mattox is a former James Lick Middle School math and science teacher, and he said from his perspective as an African American he's seen the issues Haney's resolution addresses clear as day.

"My sense is that teachers might be blowing the alarm a little bit too soon as far as their brown and black students are concerned, especially the boys. They don't know how to manage them," he said. In his experience, misbehaving children are sent out of the room too soon.

In the short term, suspensions are an expedient tool, but punishment without communication does long lasting damage. "The dynamic between teacher and student did not get resolved inside of the class," he said.

One SFUSD school tackled the specter of racism head on. Mission High School is at the vanguard of what its principal calls "anti-racist teaching."

Mission High has a higher African American student college placement rate than many SFUSD schools, a group that struggles to perform elsewhere. And as a designated "newcomer pathway" for new immigrants, the school has 40 percent English language learners.