Students suffer from 'invisible suspensions'

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At the Board of Education meeting on Feb. 4, students rallied against suspensions they see as unfair. Advocates negotiated rule changes. San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education commissioners shook their fists at injustice.

The uproar concerned "willful defiance" suspensions, cited nationwide as problematic because of their subjective nature. Wearing a backwards cap, having a bad day, talking back, all fall under the umbrella of willful defiance.

The suspension ban is monumental, SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza told the board.

But new data shows that a different form of punishment, which was previously unrecorded, may cause almost as much harm.

Ever been sent to the principal's office? That's known as a referral, and in California it's enshrined in state education code. Students can be sent to a counselor, principal, or even another classroom. But President Sandra Lee Fewer said the numbers of referrals are getting out of hand, and must be addressed.

Fewer amended the controversial resolution to ban suspensions, calling for it to also require a reduction of in-school referrals.

The punishment, she said, deprives students of needed classroom time — and is ineffective.

"We can't pass a resolution like this without including referrals," Fewer said. "These are in the thousands. Some schools have three times the amount of black children with referrals."

She called them "invisible suspensions," because this school year is the first time they've been thoroughly tracked, thanks to a new system called the Counselor Online Referral Form.

The new data shows thousands of middle school students (high school data is still being collected), mostly black and Latino, were sent out of the classroom for "non-compliance" referrals since the last school semester alone. "Non-compliance" referrals are nebulous, advocates allege, a subjective catch-all category for bad behavior. 

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