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In 2014, a team of Harvard researchers visited San Diego Unified and produced a report that convinced school district administrators their punitive, zero-tolerance policies weren’t working.

According to the researchers, a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions had involved students of color and those with disabilities. Students repeatedly suspended from school were more likely to drop out of school or be involved with the criminal justice system.

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The year before the report was released, black students in the district represented 10 percent of the student body but made up 25 percent of suspensions and 21 percent of expulsions. They were more than three and half times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Students with special needs made up only 10 percent of the student body, but 34 percent of suspensions.

Along with school districts across the country, that year San Diego Unified shifted its approach to discipline, moving to what it calls “restorative practices” — a more therapeutic approach than turning to suspensions as a first resort. It was part of a nationwide push under the Obama administration to close the gap between the way students of color and their white peers are disciplined.

Restorative justice is more focused on prevention — addressing students’ underlying issues before they act out — than punishment. It includes things like mediation and dialogue. It stresses the need for students to build relationships in school and understand the impact of their decisions.

The problem is that while San Diego Unified changed its discipline policies four years ago, it’s only now in its first year of training staff members districtwide. This year, it hired a staff member to oversee the program and inked a three-year, $866,000 contract with National Conflict Resolution Center to train teachers and administrators on how to implement the strategies. But according to the district’s timeline, restorative justice practices won’t be fully implemented until 2020.

In September, school board members diverged from their typically glowing evaluation of Superintendent Cindy Marten when they dinged her for being slow to implement restorative justice practices across the district.

And now some educators are voicing concern about the unexpected consequences of the softened approach to discipline. They say the change has actually increased violence in schools.

Lindsay Burningham, president of the San Diego Educators Association, said she’s heard concern from teachers about how the program is being implemented.

“Members have raised concerns about the implementation of what should be a great opportunity to keep kids in school, end the disproportionate number of suspensions for students of color and put a dent in the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “I think, in general, our members believe in restorative justice but they don’t have the resources or training to make it successful.”

Two educators who have worked at Lincoln High told VOSD that teachers and administrators are under pressure to keep suspension rates low. But without adequate training or support, administrators improvised by sending students home informally instead of suspending them.

Behavior reports from Lincoln High show that’s what happened in 2014, when two students who’d been challenging each other for two consecutive days got into a fight. A student bear-hugged the other and slammed him to the ground. The document says administrators sent them home informally that day to “cool down.”

A district spokesperson said the practice, known as “blue slipping,” doesn’t violate any rules, and can be an effective way to diffuse a tense situation. But informally sending students home appears nowhere on the district’s Uniform Discipline Plan, a framework for how to handle discipline.

And blue slipping students in lieu of documented suspensions puts into question the accuracy of the school’s — and potentially the district’s — suspension rates. Kicking kids out of school for the day is a suspension, whether it’s labeled that way or not.

The Washington Post reported on a similar trend in D.C. public schools in July, when it found at least seven of the district’s 18 high schools had kicked kids out of school for the day without labeling them as suspensions.

The Lincoln educators I spoke with say the practice creates unclear and inconsistent consequences for students, which contributes to a cycle of negative behavior.

Similar tensions are playing out in other cities. In Buffalo, N.Y.,  a survey of 1,217 teachers — representing a third of the district’s teachers — found that less than 10 percent of teachers believe disruptive student behavior is being handled quickly and properly in their schools.

In Oklahoma City, teachers said they felt more like babysitters than educators, and one reported that teachers were told misbehavior would not result in suspension unless there was blood.

Anthony Ceja, a senior manager for the San Diego County Office of Education who helps train schools on how to implement restorative practices, said they absolutely can lead to more chaotic classrooms when they’re not done properly.

To do restorative practices effectively, he said, administrators and teachers need to have clear communication. He often hears from frustrated teachers who say they send kids out of the room, only to see them reappear later. Because the teacher doesn’t know what was said in the office, he or she may assume the student faced no consequences.

“When you have a disconnect between teachers and the main office, that’s a formula for disaster,” he said.

Ceja said one of the biggest mistakes school districts have made is conflating lower suspension rates with restorative justice.

“The mistake that a number of school districts have made is tying restorative practices to reduced suspensions. If you do restorative practices well, the suspension rates will probably go down, but it’s not meant to be an alternative to discipline.”

Too often overlooked, Ceja said, is the relationship-building component of restorative justice, which helps students and staff see each other as people.

“This is what some schools really aren’t willing to do: Invest the time in the relationship building aspect of restorative justice. When students are able to humanize staff and other students, they’re much less likely to act out or hurt their classmates,” he said.

The Link Between Safety and School Discipline

Last week, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan joined Superintendent Cindy Marten for a press conference to assure the public that students who call in threats to schools will be identified and held accountable.

In the weeks that followed the shooting in Parkland, Fla., Marten said the district received 49 threats to schools, which has resulted in more than 125 hours of overtime for officers, lost staff time and missed instructional time. In addition to student walkouts and protests calling for increased gun control, one outcome of the shootings in Parkland has been a nationwide conversation about the link between safety and discipline in schools.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is among those who called on U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to revise Obama-era discipline policies, arguing the “federal guidance may have contributed to systemic failures to report Nikolas Cruz’s dangerous behaviors to local law enforcement.”

Any effort to roll back the federal guidelines, however, would likely have little impact on California’s statewide discipline policies or its newly established accountability measures, EdSource reports.

When a former Minneapolis schools superintendent launched her own review of discipline referrals for kindergarten boys, she had a troubling revelation, reports the New York Times.

“The descriptions of white children by teachers included ‘gifted but can’t use his words’ and ‘high strung,’ with their actions excused because they ‘had a hard day,’ the Times reports. “Black children … were ‘destructive’ and ‘violent,’ and ‘cannot be managed.’”

That finding raises uncomfortable questions about teachers’ biases — something that research indicates is seen as early as preschool.

It’s difficult to explain away those differences without confronting racism. That point is at the center of a groundbreaking new study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the Census Bureau, which found “black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds.”

Among other revelations, the study found that most white boys raised in wealthy families will stay rich or upper middle class as adults, but black boys raised in similarly rich households will not.

The tentacles of racism and discrimination reach across generations. Only 60 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that separate schools for white and black students were fundamentally unequal. Linda Brown, who was at the center of Brown v. Board of Education, died this week at 76.

A San Francisco public school student failed every class in high school and not a single adult stepped up to help him. The story lays bare the ugly results of social promotion. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Charter Schools Group Endorses Villaraigosa

With just 70 days to go before the June primary election, the battle lines are drawn. Charter school advocates are throwing their support behind Antonio Villaraigosa for governor, while teachers unions are going for Gavin Newsom.

The California Charter Schools Association Advocates, CCSA’s political arm, emphatically endorsed Villaraigosa at its annual charter school conference in San Diego this week.

CCSA president Jed Wallace said that if elected governor, Newsom would “‘inflict major harm on our schools and claim to be our friend,’” EdSource reports. Newsom’s camp dismissed the criticisms as “name-calling and distortion.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the California Charter Schools Association endorsed Antonio Villaraigosa for governor. The endorsement came from The California Charter Schools Association Advocates, the group’s political arm.

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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