Education

FUSD invests $1 million in black students in hopes of combating high discipline rates

Kalani Richard, 11, listens to mentor Gregory Barfield during a mentoring session at Kirk Elementary School in 2015. Barfield joined Fresno Unified’s Boys to Men program to focus on black student issues.
Kalani Richard, 11, listens to mentor Gregory Barfield during a mentoring session at Kirk Elementary School in 2015. Barfield joined Fresno Unified’s Boys to Men program to focus on black student issues. ezamora@fresnobee.com

Fresno Unified is investing nearly $1 million in its black students, as racial disparities in the district’s suspensions and expulsions continue.

The district’s black students are suspended at a rate nearly three times higher than white and Latino students. While black students only account for 8 percent of enrollment at Fresno Unified – California’s fourth-largest district – they made up nearly 25 percent of all suspensions in the 2014-15 school year.

Of the 145 students expelled in Fresno Unified that year, 81 were Latino, 50 were black and 10 were white. (The remaining four were either American Indian, Asian or biracial.)

The discipline rates for other races is not nearly as disproportionate. Latino students account for 60 percent of suspensions, and also make up 67 percent of the Fresno Unified student body. White students make up about 10 percent of Fresno Unified, and account for 9 percent of suspensions. While Asian students make up 10 percent of the Fresno Unified population, they account for only 2 percent of suspensions.

The Bee focused on Fresno schools’ racial imbalance in its discipline policies as part of an Eye on Education series in 2015. But Fresno Unified is not unique.

Nationally, black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students, and nearly twice as likely to be expelled, according to data released by the U.S. Education Department in 2016.

10,541Fresno Unified students were suspended in 2014-15

Statewide, the numbers are similar. While California has dramatically decreased its school discipline rates across-the-board, black students made up nearly 20 percent of suspensions even though they only make up 6 percent of the population.

“Not only are they subjected to more discipline, but exclusionary discipline. Anything that severs you from instruction is problematic because all it does is perpetuate more issues. It’s a vicious cycle we have to deal with,” said Fresno Unified’s interim superintendent, Bob Nelson. “The bottom line is, we’ve traditionally shown we’re not doing good enough work with African American kids. And that has to change.”

Fresno Unified is in the midst of hiring someone to fill a new position that is entirely focused on promoting “a culture of equity and inclusion for African American students, families, employees, and community.” The district will also invest in mentoring and parent outreach programs targeting the black community.

The move comes after a Kern County judge ruled July 26 that black and Latino students were being unfairly disciplined in schools – the first settlement of its kind in the state.

A lawsuit filed in 2014 by California Rural Legal Assistance and other civil rights groups alleged that Kern High School District, which had the highest number of expulsions in the state at the time, had discriminatory policies that led to the number of black and Latino students removed from school for discipline issues to be double that of white students. Now, teachers will have to undergo training about stereotypes and race issues, and the district must provide educational funds to the 14 student plaintiffs who were wrongly disciplined.

We can’t allow teachers to have a differentiating set of behavior expectations for different ethnicities.

Fresno Unified interim superintendent Bob Nelson

“Racially biased discipline is often the result of unacknowledged stereotypes of Latino and black students that result in their being suspended and expelled in disproportionately higher numbers than their white counterparts,” said Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, which was also involved in the Kern case.

But Nelson expects criticism of the district’s recent investments. Fresno teachers have criticized the district’s push for restorative justice programs – an approach to discipline that allows students more chances after an offense, and aims to avoid kicking them out of class. Several instances of teachers being hit or otherwise injured by students have furthered concerns that the district’s change in its discipline policies has led to unruly classrooms.

But Nelson says these are separate issues – both of which need to be fixed in Fresno schools.

“There’s certain disciplinary behaviors that are completely and utterly unacceptable. I’m not talking about giving anybody a pass who punches a teacher. That being said, we can’t allow teachers to have a differentiating set of behavior expectations for different ethnicities. That’s not acceptable, either,” he said. “My job is to make everything better for every student every day. This is an issue grounded in biases and cultural overtones, and it’s part of a larger societal conversation. We have to start having really difficult conversations.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

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