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The San Diego Unified School District disciplines black and Latino students more often and more harshly than other students, and “has been diligently working on addressing disproportionate suspensions rates” for years, said R. Vernon Moore, the district’s executive director of student services.

Moore emailed me in response to this story highlighting racial disparities reflected in the district’s discipline rates. In the story, I detailed that a large number of students aren’t being sent home for posing serious threats to safety — like packing guns or selling dope — but for relatively minor infractions like refusing to do homework or for acting disrespectfully toward staff.

Behavior that falls into this gray area can be categorized as “willful defiance,” a catchall term that school districts like Los Angeles Unified have banned for its disproportionate impact on Latino and black students.

Moore pointed to a draft of San Diego Unified’s Uniform Discipline Plan, which was adopted by the district’s board of trustees in September 2012. The document “illustrates the district’s intent to mitigate suspensions for acts of defiance or disruption,” Moore wrote in an email.

Though the willful defiance policy is still in effect, and there’s so far no indication it will be changed – Moore is right that the Uniform Discipline Plan is instructive in how the district hopes to deal with these issues moving forward. The report, which runs 26 pages long, reads in part:

Reducing the racial disparities in school discipline is an important goal of this plan. As is noted in the available district data, school discipline policies affect all students, however, past practices have disproportionately impacted students of color.

African American, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American students, in particular, are more likely to be suspended, expelled, and arrested than their White peers, even for the same behavior. African American, Latino, and Native American students also tend to receive harsher punishments than their peers for the same offenses.

The report continues:

The systemic racial inequalities that persist in school discipline practices must be acknowledged and the district must therefore eliminate institutional structures which contribute to any form of discrimination or bias that present barriers to success for students. 

Toward this end, here are a few ways the plan would aim to create a more equitable learning environment:

• Recommending reasonable consequences and making every reasonable effort to correct student misbehavior in school or on school grounds

• Ensuring due process, and explaining rights to parents and students

• Allocating a portion of teachers professional development to issues regarding student behavior and discipline

• Instituting greater protections for students with disabilities and ensuring that their Individualized Education Plans are followed

• Fostering meaningful parent, student, and community involvement

• Further limiting the option of out-of-school suspension for students who are homeless or have no safe place to go during the school day

The plan, which Moore said was modeled largely after recommendations made by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, also contains tiered response-recommendations for certain types of behavior.

In short, the plan is comprehensive. The problem: It remains a guiding document, as it has been since it was first adopted over a year ago.

Moore called it a “living document,” subject to change, and said that it hasn’t been fully rolled out in a formal manner. And the date for when it will be next discussed is uncertain.

“If you’re asking me if I have a definitive timeline, I don’t,” he said.

So what holds it back? For one, getting everybody to agree on whether the policies go too far, or not far enough.

For example, while Moore said that using willful defiance as a category to suspend students is open-ended, it is included in the California Education Code. A statewide ban eliminating its use might require action from the governor.

And opting for in-school suspensions, in lieu of those that send students home, requires a shift in resources and complicates staffing concerns.

Finally, Moore said, simply eliminating willful defiance as a category for suspensions doesn’t necessarily address the underlying issues.

“My personal feeling on it is that if you’re the San Diego Police Department and you’re told not to arrest people for shoplifting, the number of shoplifting arrests will go down, but will the shoplifting decrease?” Moore said.

Instead of focusing on willful defiance, the more important conversation would be looking at alternative interventions — if they’re practical, viable and effective, he said.

“I think some districts are (eliminating willful defiance) too quickly. And we want to avoid rushing into it out of political pressure, or just because other districts are doing it,” he said.

The Uniform Discipline Plan was formalized insomuch as it was adopted at a board meeting, but the recommendations are not implemented across schools. For example, discussions about resource shifting for in-school suspensions hasn’t happened, at least not uniformly across the district, per the plan.

Moore said that after the start of the New Year, he will ask district leaders to start offering their recommendations for the next steps of the Uniform Discipline Plan. After that, he said he plans to hold community forums, and meet with school leaders.

So far those meetings haven’t been scheduled.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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