The expulsion rate for black students in the Grossmont Union High School District, which includes Granite Hills High, has been seven times higher than the county average for the last two years, according to state data. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Black students at Grossmont Union High School District are significantly more likely to be expelled than at other districts throughout San Diego County.

Grossmont’s expulsion rate for black students has been seven times higher than the county average for the last two years, according to California Department of Education data. In the 2015-2016 school year, it was six times higher than the county average.

As many school districts across the state have moved toward restorative justice practices, which attempt to eliminate racial disparities in punishment, Grossmont’s use of expulsion as a punishment against black students continues to be pervasive.

The numbers are “astronomical,” said J. Luke Wood, a professor of education who focuses on equity issues at San Diego State University. “It’s incredibly disheartening.”

Grossmont’s expulsion rate for black students has remained virtually unchanged since the 2012-2013 school year. Meanwhile, the expulsion rate for black students in San Diego County has decreased by nearly 50 percent during the same time.

Theresa Kemper, an assistant superintendent at Grossmont, said the data shouldn’t be compared against a countywide average since Grossmont is a high school-only district.

“We have only teenagers, and you’ll find across the nation that teenagers get in more trouble — or potential trouble — with the law because of their age and what they’re doing, than middle school or elementary school kids. So when you look at our numbers, it’s very concentrated,” she said.

But when compared with other high school districts in San Diego County, Grossmont fares even worse. Among the county’s four other high school districts with black students — no black students attend the extremely tiny Julian Union High School District — not a single black student was expelled.

Some of the other high school districts are home to few black students compared with Grossmont. Only Sweetwater Union High School District has a similarly sized black student body, and Sweetwater expelled no black students.

San Diego Unified School District — which serves all grade levels — has the largest number of students in the county, and the largest number of black students. In numbers alone, San Diego Unified expelled four more black students than Grossmont. But Grossmont’s expulsion rate of 1.19 percent was over seven times higher than San Diego Unified’s rate of .16 percent.

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Wood said Grossmont’s expulsion rate is especially alarming because students who get expelled or suspended are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. Schools with high expulsion rates are sometimes referred to as “feeder schools” by prison wardens, Wood said, because of the frequency at which expelled students find themselves incarcerated.

“It is a system designed to incarcerate people of color,” he said.

San Diego NAACP Vice President Francine Maxwell said expulsions “take the wind out of a child’s sails” and that districts need to go beyond implicit bias training.

“There’s other things you should be able to put into place — put a behavioral plan together — for every child that doesn’t involve taking them away from their education,” she said.

Grossmont acknowledged the problem in its legally required Local Control Accountability Plan, in which it cited black student suspension rates as one of its highest concerns. The district wrote that its goal is to make intervention programs, like drugs and weapons education, which are intended to divert suspensions, more accessible to students.

The district also hopes to reduce its overall expulsion rate, but the plan does not address the disproportionately high expulsion rate among black students. Grossmont wants to lower the expulsion rate to .2 percent by 2020, according to its three-year plan. In 2017-18, the district’s overall expulsion rate was .42 percent, also the highest in the county.

Many schools are moving away from “exclusionary discipline,” the practice of punishing students with removal from the classroom via suspension or expulsion, said Wood. Districts have moved instead toward restorative practices, which encourage educators to ask questions and discover the root of the unwanted behavior instead of immediately disciplining someone.

Grossmont had 1,511 black students during 2017-2018, and expelled 18 of them. With only 45 black students being expelled throughout the county, that means 40 percent of the expulsions of black students in San Diego County that year came from Grossmont.

Maxwell said the high expulsion rates were not surprising — and that her group has received complaints about Grossmont Union in the past. She also said actions of schools across the country do not match the restorative practice methods they say they have implemented.

“As a nation, we’re talking about how we want to end the school-to-prison pipeline,” Maxwell said. “But the data clearly shows that the audio is not matching the video. They are saying one thing and doing a whole bunch of another.”

While San Diego Unified is the largest district in the county, it has the fourth highest black student expulsion rate at .16 percent. Escondido Union School District had the second highest rate at .34 percent. Cajon Valley Union School District had the third highest expulsion rate for black students at .33 percent.

Those figures, which are higher than the expulsion rates for white children, show that many districts struggle with the “general mistreatment of young black children,” Wood said.  Even as school districts around the county move to restorative practices, Wood thinks there is still work to be done.

“I don’t think it means that San Diego is doing well,” he said. “I just think it means that we’re doing better than people who are doing horribly.”

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