Eye on Education

Fresno programs try to repair racial imbalance in student suspensions

Gregory Barfield walks into a classroom at Kirk Elementary in southwest Fresno where he mentors the school’s most misbehaving students once a week, and notices someone new has joined.

William Fowler, a tiny fifth-grader who has zipped his hooded sweatshirt so far up that it hides part of his face, says, “I’m angry,” as a sort of introduction to the group.

“I try to calm it down but I can’t really  it just goes out,” William says. “They said when I have like an attitude or when I act out or something, I can come here, tell what happened and just calm down.”

Today’s lesson is about tolerance, and the quote of the day comes from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Kirk Elementary’s Boys to Men program has only existed for about three weeks, but Barfield and the students seem to already have created a bond. Most of the boys were handpicked by school administrators to join the program because of a history of disruptive behavior, and Barfield’s job is to help them avoid disciplinary action by getting to the root of their issues.

Barfield volunteers because he is especially qualified – but not just because of his work at City Hall or his experience with various nonprofits.

“They needed African American men,” he said.

Disproportionate rates

None of the students who have been selected to participate in Kirk Elementary’s Boys to Men program is white – a picture that is telling of school discipline statistics across the Valley and the U.S.

While expulsions and suspensions continue to drop and schools look to restorative justice models to keep students in the classroom, racial disparities remain when it comes to out-of-school discipline.

The state’s black students are three times as likely as white students to be suspended and expelled, according to the Black Minds Matter report released by the Education Trust-West in October. At Fresno Unified, the suspension rate for black students is 2.5 times higher than the district average.

Last year in Fresno County schools, about 64 percent of suspended students were Hispanic, 15 percent were black and 15 percent were white. Compare those numbers to the county’s demographics and the disparities are clear: Hispanic students make up more than 60 percent of the student population; white students make up 19 percent and black students only account for 5 percent.

“When I see that, obviously as an African American male, you wonder what can we do,” said Darrin Person, who oversees programs for Fresno Unified’s Prevention and Intervention department. “We’ve found that mentoring does help, because a lot of these students don’t know how to cope or behave and they’re getting punished for it. A kid that acted out in school – that was me. Mentors in my life helped change that.”

“That disproportionality still exists, but it’s one step at a time,” he said.

The question at the heart of restorative efforts is, what is happening outside of school that affects children in class? At Boys to Men, the fifth- and sixth-graders casually talk about “incidents” – school officials have asked them to use that term when referring to local shootings. Several of them recently witnessed a drive-by shooting during flag football practice.

“It’s about mentoring groups like this, it’s about Mom and Dad coming to the school and being a part of the fabric of the school, and it’s about the community embracing the school and understanding what’s going on around these children,” Barfield said. “But really, we’ve just got to build some relationships. This could be their sanctuary – we don’t know what they’re going back home to.”

Sidney Phipps’ son, Christopher, attends the program. Now a fifth-grader, Christopher used to get in a lot of trouble at his old school. His former principal told Phipps that Christopher was “unteachable and out of control.”

But since he transferred to Kirk Elementary, he maintains A’s and B’s, he joined student council and there is a change in his personality.

“They show him how to be, and they reward him for doing it, rather than just constantly putting him down or giving up. As long as he doesn’t give up, they won’t give up, and he knows that,” Phipps said. “Before it was, ‘he has an anger problem, he has this, he has that.’ But instead of getting rid of the problem, they wanted to get rid of him.

“Kirk has programs that strive to help these students – they give them experiences with people who have been where they’ve been and believe in them and want to pick them back up,” he said. “Schools should help these kids, not discard them.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released a set of guidelines that urged schools to avoid discriminating on the basis of race when it comes to disciplinary action.

“Significant and unexplained racial disparities in student discipline give rise to concerns that schools may be engaging in racial discrimination that violates the federal civil rights laws,” said the report, which was overseen by the Office for Civil Rights.

At Fresno Unified, black students make up 25 percent of all suspensions attributed to “willful defiance” – a vague and disputed education term that could mean something as minor as speaking out of turn. Only four students in the district actually were expelled for willful defiance during the 2013-14 school year: Three were Hispanic, one was black.

Assembly Bill 420, legislation that went into effect January 2015, now forbids schools from expelling for willful defiance and also prohibits suspensions related to the rule for students in third grade and younger.

“There wasn’t really a definition of what (willful defiance) was, and we saw that these students weren’t only getting kicked out at disproportionate rates but for things that you normally wouldn’t consider would rise to that level to kick them out,” said Sandra Celedon-Castro, manager at Fresno Building Healthy Communities, which pushed Fresno Unified to drop its zero-tolerance policies.

“Restorative justice is a good first step. But there have been historical policies designed – whether intentionally or not – that are impacting people of color at a disproportionate rate.”

The Education Trust-West report points to segregated communities as part of the reason minority students struggle more than their white peers in school. A black student is eight times more likely to attend one of the state’s lowest performing schools, according to the report. Black children are also more likely than white children to live in homes affected by financial hardships and are less likely to attend preschool.

Erica Hasenbeck, restorative practices manager at Fresno Unified, said the district is focusing more than ever on the racial disparities seen in disciplinary action in schools and looking for more mentors that kids can relate to.

“It’s neuroscience – your brain is in a state of learning when you feel safe, in a predictable environment with people who want the best for you. We know it’s really about the whole context of the school culture, about restoring relationships,” she said. “A lot of times, kids are acting out because they don’t feel they belong anywhere.”

‘No one listens’

Karisma and Katanni Senegal finish each other’s sentences. Sometimes they speak in unison.

Before answering questions, they give each other a thoughtful look, as if seeking the other’s approval.

Like a lot of twins, they say they’re connected on a deep level.

So when police officers knocked on their mother’s door about a year ago, she wasn’t surprised when both of her 16-year-old daughters were arrested.

The girls asked The Bee not to publish their charges – not because they aren’t open about what happened, but because over the past year, they’ve worked hard to get their records wiped clean. Their arrests were over an altercation with a classmate.

“I was being bullied and I chose to respond in the wrong way,” Karisma said.

“I was just there to protect her,” Katanni added.

Thanks to the Community Justice Conference, a restorative justice program that helps first-time juvenile offenders, Karisma and Katanni, who attend McLane High School, have a fresh start and are talking about college applications and the future as if their run-in with the law never happened.

For nine weeks, they worked closely with the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program at Fresno Pacific University, where they talked about what led to the altercation, how it could have been avoided and what they can do to fix it.

The Victim Offender Reconciliation Program was used as a prime example of positive discipline alternatives when community groups pushed Fresno Unified in 2013 to adopt restorative policies that would curb suspensions and expulsions.

What Katanni learned through the program is something she hopes teachers and other adults can learn when dealing with students who have been labeled as problem children: “Get all the facts before you go off and do it.”

Seeing her friends kicked out of school and arrested is “heartbreaking,” Karisma said. “Because a lot of kids are like us – they’re good. They really want to try hard. But no one listens.”

Their mother, Laneesha Senegal, says that’s the problem: If more adults were willing to listen, fewer of Fresno’s most at-risk children would be disciplined in school for things they can’t control outside of school.

“They’re being penalized for something that’s lacking in their lives. In our system, automatically the first thing is to penalize – charge or suspend them because we don’t know how to deal with them. But believe it or not, without the circumstances, these are good kids. They have dreams,” Senegal said.

“If you don’t listen to these kids, they don’t want to go to school. They’re tired of answering to teachers that don’t understand them. I’m not trying to make this a race thing – I’m just trying to get to the heart of our young people who need a voice.”

Senegal isn’t worried so much about her own children. She is worried about their peers – some who are hungry, selling drugs or involved in human trafficking – who won’t get the opportunity Katanni and Karisma did.

“I was determined as a mother that I wasn’t going to allow them to be a number in the system. I was there to say, ‘no, not mine,’ but half of these kids don’t even have a parent to wake them up to get to them to school on time,” she said. “CJC saved these girls’ lives. It gave them a second chance to recognize their value.”

Brian Madrigal, a student at Cambridge Continuation High School – one of Fresno’s few alternative schools – knows what it’s like to feel unheard. But since joining Men’s Alliance – a restorative program that focuses on “coping skills to manage negative behaviors that lead to suspension/expulsion” – he feels like he belongs.

“Most teachers, they only talk to you about your grades. But here, we talk about everything. We’re just all comfortable. We have different struggles, but they all somehow relate,” Brian said. “At my old school, they just kicked me out all the time. I would always get kicked out for being late, but they never asked me why I was late. No one ever asked if I needed help at all.”

At Cambridge High, 75 percent of the student body is Hispanic and 12 percent is black. The school provides academic help for students who have fallen behind and takes alternative approaches to behavioral problems, like a “no conduct referral system” policy that encourages teachers to manage minor issues.

Tyrece Brown, who is also part of the Men’s Alliance program, says while the school is considered a punishment for students who act out, he prefers it to schools he has tried before.

“You feel like the teachers actually care about what you’re going through. At other schools, teachers just want you to do everything they assign to you, but as far as problems at home, it doesn’t matter,” Tyrece said. “When you’ve got people who really care, it changes you in a good way. It pushes you to work harder.”

Tyrece said he knows that Cambridge students are labeled as bad kids, but he doesn’t think that way.

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as bad people,” he said. “Everybody has their good, it’s just sometimes people get off track.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

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