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At Millennial Tech Middle School in Chollas View, three out of every 10 Black students – a full 30 percent – were suspended at least once during the 2018-19 school year.
Delphine Duckett’s granddaughter was one of them. She has been suspended so many times, Duckett has lost count. “Sometimes, it was needed and sometimes it wasn’t,” said Duckett.
Sometimes, the granddaughter has been accused of getting in fights. Others, it was just looking at somebody wrong. “They call me and say, ‘Come get her.’ Put her in the car and say, ‘See you later Ms. Duckett.’ No teacher to contact. No packet of work for her to do,” said Duckett. “‘We’ll just send her home instead of dealing with it.’”
The term “person of color” has become so standardized in recent years that at times it has been used interchangeably with “African-American.” But in many important respects, Black people do not face the same problems as those of other minority racial groups. Suspensions are one of those problems.
No other racial group is so disproportionately suspended as Black students – only one even comes close. Across San Diego County’s 42 school districts, Black students represent less than 5 percent of the student population. And yet they represent more than 12 percent of the overall suspensions. Their share of total suspensions is almost three times higher than their share of the total population.
Native Americans are also suspended at a rate almost twice as high as their share of the population.
All other racial groups are suspended roughly in line with their share of the total population – or much less.
Latino students are slightly disproportionately suspended. White students are disproportionately suspended too – but in reverse. Their share of total suspensions is about a third less than their share of the student body. Asian students are the least suspended racial group.
A Voice of San Diego analysis found that only nine of the county’s school districts suspend Black students in line with their share of the population or to a lesser extent. VOSD created a suspension index, which gauges each district’s proportionality. A score of “1” indicates that Black students are suspended in line with their share of the population. Any number above a “1” measures how disproportionately they are suspended.
If you can’t see the map above, view it here.
In 15 of the districts with available data from the 2018-19 school year, Black students’ share of suspensions were at least double their share of the population.
San Diego Unified School District scored a 2.7 on the index, meaning the percentage of Black student suspensions is almost three times higher than their share of the population.
“The high rates of suspension are a function of children and students being over-criminalized and undervalued,” said J. Luke Wood, who has researched Black student suspension at San Diego State University. Educators “assume that [Black students] will be troublemakers. They hyper-surveil them. They single them out even when other children are doing the same thing.”
Middle schools, like Millennial Tech – which was on track to reduce the suspension rate for Black students to 21 percent before last school year was cut abruptly short, said a district spokeswoman – tend to suspend all racial groups more often than other elementary and high schools. But the disparity in suspensions between Black and White students tends to be most pronounced in the younger grades, said Wood.
This was true at Del Mar Union Elementary School District, which managed to score a 55.7 on the suspension index. Black students there make up less than 1 percent of the student body, but made up a full 50 percent of the district’s total suspensions in 2018-19.
Del Mar’s numbers have swung wildly. In the previous year, Del Mar officials suspended no Black students.
I talked to two Black parents whose children had bad disciplinary experiences in kindergarten that stuck with them for years.
Yvette Porter-Moore is a lifelong San Diego resident. Porter Elementary School – which is located in a historically Black neighborhood – is named after her father.
Porter-Moore said her child was suspended in kindergarten while attending the La Mesa-Spring Valley school district. “My child had no issues with their work. But it seemed like the teachers were always talking about a behavioral problem,” said Porter-Moore.
The child had all white teachers through the younger grades. And it seemed as if the teachers passed on information through an informal network that Porter-Moore’s child was a troublemaker, she said.
The cycle didn’t break until the child went to school in Chula Vista around sixth grade. For the first time, they had a Latino teacher. “That was the first time there were no issues,” said Porter-Moore.
“It’s almost like psychological warfare, because their identity is shaped and formed during their school years,” said Keashonna Christopher, a Black parent who also works as a counselor in San Diego Unified.
Her child threw some things in the classroom when he was in kindergarten and his teacher called the police on him and suspended him, she said.
“There was probably a million dollars in degrees in that school and they can’t manage the needs of a Black little boy, 5 years old at school?” she said. “I’ve seen this over and over again as an educator. He’s 13 years old and he’s only now starting to process what happened and be able to put words to it.”
At every turn, Christopher’s son has been deeply impacted by how his teachers see him – or rather how they don’t. They assume he is not as capable as other students and they think he is less likely to be smart. They think he is more likely to be a behavior problem, she said.
“He’s internalized it and he is very angry. He’s very angry and upset and resentful about his experiences in school,” she said.
As a school counselor, Christopher often gets pulled into conversations about discipline. One section of the state Education Code in particular gets used by certain teachers to disproportionally suspend Black students, she said.
Education Code 48910 gives teachers the ultimate authority to suspend students from their class for at least two days. That means if a teacher is determined to suspend a student, there is almost nothing a principal or counselor can do to stop it.
This also tracks with Wood’s research. He said suspensions can often be traced back to just a handful of teachers. Though he also pointed out that just because a Black student is not suspended by some teachers, does not mean the student doesn’t face other implicit and explicit discrimination from those teachers.
Here’s another thing about suspending students: “It just doesn’t work,” said R. Christian Gordon, a vice principal at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts.
Gordon, who is a Black educator, grew up in southeastern San Diego. He has taught at several schools there, including Porter Elementary.
“What we know about suspensions is that research says they don’t make a big difference about changing behavior, anyway. It behooves us to build relationships with kids to figure out how to keep them in school and engaged,” he said.
As a Black person from San Diego, it is much easier for him to understand what Black students are going through than other teachers from different backgrounds, he said. White educators, however, have often been willing to learn from him about how they might better understand their Black students, he said.
Gordon himself had several Black teachers as a child, which was very important for him, he said. And research backs up the idea that Black students having Black teachers is extremely important. One study found that Black students who had one Black teacher before fourth grade were 13 percent more likely to go to college. If a Black student had two Black teachers before fourth grade, they were 32 percent more likely to go to college.
Black educators – as well as other racial groups – are vastly under-represented in teaching, a previous Voice of San Diego analysis found. Administrators, like Gordon, are even more under-represented.
But even having Black administrators is not always enough to prevent the over-suspension of Black students. Gordon and his fellow vice principal are both Black. But at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, Black students are still more likely to be suspended than any other group – and more than twice as likely to be suspended as a White student.
“We’re painfully aware of it,” Gordon said. “It is something we are trying to be much more intentional about.”
Certain actions will trigger a suspension, Gordon said, and that leaves him with no other options. He also noted that the Education Code gives teachers an ultimate authority to be able to suspend students that he cannot always override.
Wood, the researcher, said the fix for the over-suspension of Black students is surprisingly simple. After one of his studies came out, a principal of one school with discouraging suspension rates for Black students reached out and wanted help.
“We’d meet with them and they showed us their data on each suspension. Simply by looking at data, just because someone was paying attention, we were able to undo what was going on,” said Wood. “That school had a major turnaround for suspension levels and academic performance for Black students.”