Alexis Ramirez missed most of kindergarten to sobbing fits. First grade at Edison Elementary was little better. She would cling to the school gates or run from the classroom. Her flustered parents enlisted a police officer to tell Alexis that school was mandatory. Nothing worked.

“She would never stay with anyone else, except her mom,” said her father, Antonio Ramirez. “Even me.”

Missing so much class dragged down her grades. It took heavy cajoling and rewards from her mother and her teachers to coax Alexis, now 8, to the classroom, but slowly she came around to the idea. Now she clamors for books and primps in the mirror each morning before school.

Alexis’ story opens a window onto a quiet crisis in schools. Though behavior often takes a backseat to academics in school reform, tantrums or talking back can block kids from learning at all, pulling them from class for suspensions or worse. The problem is more likely to afflict students of color, especially black boys, who are at least 50 percent more likely to be suspended and three times more likely to be labeled emotionally disturbed than their classmates.

Eyeing those numbers, educators in San Diego Unified are turning to behavior as one way to close the achievement gap between students of different races. Their goal is not only to quash misbehavior, but to change how educators handle behavior in the first place, from turning around a child like Alexis to reassessing how to diagnose a child as emotionally disturbed.

There are signs of a turnaround. Suspension rates dropped 12 percent in San Diego Unified in 2007-2008, one year after reaching their highest point in at least 25 years. Staffers caution that some of the decrease may be due to more accurate records. Racial gaps remain. But individual schools are feeling the change in calmer campuses.

Edison Elementary, for example, has cut the number of times it sends students to the principal by 25 percent this year. Tardies and absences have dropped. Unlike more than half of schools citywide, it has not identified any children as emotionally disturbed in the past three years.

Counselor Vanessa Guiboa credits its successes to a seemingly simple system. Teachers tout traits such as respect and give kids tickets to redeem for a trophy when they catch them doing good. They talk explicitly about how students should behave in three annual assemblies, teaching skills such as “follow directions the first time.” The idea is to level the playing field for kids who may have never walked in line or been asked to use a quiet voice before coming to school, said program director Roxie Jackson.

“You’re finding the good instead of the bad — even if you have to be creative about it,” said physical education teacher Laurie Cook. “I say, ‘Did I tell you guys how great you are at taking turns?’ And they start handing the ball to each other!”

Edison also has a clear system when students keep misbehaving, ratcheting up from counseling to a contract with the child to correct their behavior. Similar methods have worked wonders at Roosevelt Middle bordering Balboa Park. Praise is abundant and mischievous students are given a “reset” to calm down, returning to their seats for a minute. Teachers are urged to handle minor problems such as chewing gum themselves instead of kicking kids out. Disciplinary incidents have dropped 61 percent so far this year.

Such efforts may sound hokey or startlingly basic, but they have shown results. And San Diego Unified staffers say they are far from universal, feeding the dismal statistics that push students out of class, particularly students of color. They are spending more than $100,000 to train staffers at 15 schools in the methods this year, expanding on the efforts of schools like Edison, and plan to spread them citywide. It is one of the key ways that schools are advised to close the racial gap in suspensions and emotional disorders.

Nowhere is that gap more evident than Riley, a specialized school in Clairemont with tiny classes and extra counseling for students with emotional disorders. It looks like an ordinary school except for the scattered “transition rooms.” Each is a plain, open closet with a desk. Three questions are written on the wall: “Why are you here? What could you have done differently? How do I know you are ready to be in class?”

Kids come and go throughout the year, referred to Riley by other schools. Some have thrown chairs or attacked teachers. Almost all of them are boys and most are black or Latino, a fact so familiar that a white female teacher recently started a club to teach black boys about African culture, black history and role models. One boy said during a recent meeting, “They say that I’m here because I was being too disrespectful to teachers. Personally, I think I was just speaking truth.”

Black boys are three times more likely than other San Diego Unified students to be diagnosed as emotionally disturbed. Once labeled, they are often sent to separate classrooms or to schools such as Riley. A Harvard University professor found that the San Diego system “may be providing a perverse incentive to inappropriately label and segregate” students.

The question is complex because unlike Down Syndrome or deafness, there is no easy way to decide which students are emotionally disturbed. Scholars have linked the racial imbalance to everything from teacher bias to violent neighborhoods. Educators sometimes fail to find other factors, such as a messy divorce, that could temporarily push kids to act out.

“Once you get into the grunt work of teaching, you have trouble seeing, ‘What is going on at home?’” Riley Principal Danielle Clark said. “They become ‘that kid.’”

Now San Diego Unified is enlisting outsiders to study how schools decide when students are merely troubled and when they are emotionally disturbed. Jaime Hernandez, who oversaw a similar audit in Los Angeles, is leading experts in poring over the files of more than 500 black students with emotional disturbance this spring. Eliminating subjectivity is impossible, he said.

“But we look at what led to the decision,” Hernandez said. “What services or options were provided for that student? Did they hold an intervention meeting with their parents?”

The Los Angeles audits turned up inconsistencies in how students were labeled, leading schools to standardize how they diagnose children. It had stunning results: Thirty percent fewer children got the label as changes were unrolled. But because they cut the numbers of emotionally disturbed students of all races, the imbalance between black children and their classmates persisted. Researchers still wonder where, exactly, the problem begins.

Similar questions have long swirled about why black and Latino students are more likely to be suspended. Black boys were suspended 29.2 times for every 100 San Diego Unified students last year, compared to 6.9 suspensions for the same number of white boys and 16.8 among Latino boys.

California allows schools to suspend students for a limited list of offenses, from stealing to smoking cigarettes. But like deciding when a child is emotionally disturbed, deciding when to pull kids out of school — and when to choose a lesser punishment — is not a simple call.

A recent incident at Clark Middle School illustrates the difficulties. Ten students were suspended by the school and arrested by school police after the fourth food fight in a single week last October. The arrestees included a middle schooler with a learning disability who had never been suspended before. He wrote, “I did not know that the food people need to pay tax to give us food now that I know that I will be more responsible.” His mother felt the arrests were overkill. School police officer Carla Kuamoo felt they made sense.

“A mob mentality had developed at lunchtime,” Kuamoo wrote. Lesser punishments had failed. She “believed we must take more serious action.”

The problem is when those slippery judgments seem to impact some students more than others. Studies across the country have found that black students are more apt to be disciplined for subjective offenses such as disruption or defiance. Some scholars blame cultural miscommunications, while others say children of color are more likely to attend schools with less experienced teachers who might resort more quickly to suspensions. It is a puzzle that schools in San Diego and nationwide are still trying to unlock, one recalcitrant child at a time.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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