Board of Education president calls out thousands of “invisible suspensions”

SF Examiner photo by Mike Koozmin

K-12 student advocates have suspensions in their crosshairs.

At last night’s (Tue/4) Board of Education meeting, young 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. 

“Willful defiance” suspensions are cited nationwide as a problematic category of suspension because of their subjective nature. Wearing a backwards cap, having a bad day, talking back, all of those fall under the umbrella of willful defiance.

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

“We’re talking about culture change. A culture where it’s not okay for an adult to say ‘get out,’” Carranza said.

The point of the Board of Ed’s meeting last night was to discuss banning suspensions for willfully defiant behavior, and to refocus SFUSD resources on improving student-teacher relationships instead. 

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

Ever been sent to the principal’s office? That’s a form of 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 made an amendment to the controversial resolution to ban suspensions at last night’s meeting, 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. 


SFUSD referral data. This is incomplete data collected from the first semester and portion of the second semester of all SFUSD middle schools, but only a few high schools. Completed multi-year data of SFUSD high school suspensions show similar disparities in enforcement of punishments, however.

The board will vote on the proposed amendment and willful defiance resolution at their Feb. 25 meeting.

Fewer’s amendment would not go so far as to eliminate referrals entirely. That would be legally problematic, United Educators of San Francisco President Dennis Kelly said. 

“The teachers have a right under law to send a child to the office if there is a disruption in the classroom,” he said in a phone interview.

“There is a concern that an awful lot is being dumped on teachers and counselors,” Kelly added. “More and more people are having very good ideas and saying ‘you do it now.’” 

Reforms need to be backed by resources that help a teacher enact needed changes, he said. “Without those supplements, this is only so much talk.”

But in the meantime, students are suffering. Many students took to the podium at last night’s meeting, decrying policies they said were detrimental to their education.

Alexandria Berliner, now 22, said suspensions and referrals as a high schooler derailed her education. “I’ve been suspended so many times, I ended up dropping out of high school.”

Laura Faer is an attorney and director of the statewide education rights at the nonprofit Public Counsel. Faer told the Bay Guardian that though referrals could be problematic, it was less clear cut of an issue than suspensions.

“The question is: what is happening to the child who is referred?” she said. “If a referral goes to counseling and it’s productive, that could be a good thing.”

But the non-compliance category of referrals was a red flag for Faer. 

“Noncompliance is not specific, and I would say that’s a huge problem” she said. “It’s entirely subjective, from what we’re looking at right now. It could lead to a child losing instructional time.”

That was commissioner Fewer’s concern as well. At the meeting, she said she’s talked to kids as young as third-grade level who felt school administrators and teachers did not want them there in the schools. She blames policies that send kids out of the classroom. 

“We have a school-to-prison pipeline here, (while) we pat ourselves for our good work,” she said at the end of the meeting. 

“The impact these suspensions have is social isolation. We break spirit, and we are very good at breaking spirit.”