Students march outside San Diego Unified School District’s headquarters to demand that police officers be removed from local schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Students march outside San Diego Unified School District’s headquarters to demand that police officers be removed from local schools. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In San Diego Unified – the largest school district in the county – Black students are almost four times more likely to be suspended than White students.

That’s even more disproportionate than the county as a whole. Countywide, Black students are nearly three times more likely than Whites to be suspended.

Put another way: Black students make up less than 8 percent of the total population, but they make up more than 21 percent of total suspensions in San Diego Unified.

The problem is nothing new. Education leaders have failed to deal with it for decades. But now, even as school officials try to manage a pandemic, racial justice protests across the country are forcing them to wrestle with long-festering racial disparities, as well.

Six candidates are vying for three open seats on San Diego Unified’s school board. I reached out to get their take on the causes of disproportionate Black suspension rates and what should be done about it.

A quick note on the history of discipline practices with racist outcomes: the problem is not beyond fixing.

Currently, no other racial group is disproportionately suspended anywhere near as much as Black students within San Diego Unified. But back in 2012, suspension rates for Latino students were also extremely disproportionate.

Over a four-year period the district lowered suspension rates across the board – and more so for Latino students than other groups. By 2016, Latino student suspensions were much closer in line with other groups.

But since then progress has stalled. And for Black students, the suspension rates never dropped nearly enough to bring them in line with other groups.

District E – Southeastern San Diego

District E has historically been the center for San Diego’s Black population. Sharon Whitehurst-Payne has represented the district since 2016. She is running against LaWana Richmond, an administrator at UC San Diego.

LaWana Richmond said she believes the disproportionate suspension rate for Black students also contributes to Black students having poorer academic outcomes than their White peers. Richmond, a Black woman, said she actually experienced uneven discipline herself as a student in southeastern San Diego. She came in late to class one day and tried to quietly go to her seat. But the teacher wanted to explain something about the lesson to her and insisted she come to the front of the room.

“I can see her point of view now, but to a pre-teen it was embarrassing,” said Richmond.

She muttered “Jesus Christ” under her breath as she was walking to the front of the room. The teacher sent her to the office, and she was suspended. Richmond believes the same would likely not have happened to a White student.

“I wasn’t like I was marked for life after that. And I didn’t end up with major learning loss,” said Richmond. “But that should not be the first response. It’s not like I had been in trouble before or after that.”

Richmond said her first order of business would be trying to understand why the suspension rate remains so disproportionate. “The question has got to be ‘how do we unpack the root causes?’ It’s not a blame game,” she said.

Some of the solutions Richmond would consider are making sure more counselors are available at schools and helping get more Black teachers into the classroom.

Sharon Whitehurst-Payne declined an interview for this story, but did respond to questions by email.

“The over disciplining of Black students has been an historic reality in our schools for many years,” she wrote. “It was one of the reasons I co-founded the African American Association of Educators many years ago.”

Whitehurst-Payne said she wants to create “systemic change” through a four-point plan.

First, she believes discipline policy should be changed to eliminate suspensions for “willful defiance.” “Black students are frequently unfairly targeted for this type of discipline,” she wrote. She said she hopes the board will vote to amend its discipline policy over the summer. In 2014, California banned school districts from using willful defiance as a reason to suspend young students in kindergarten through third grade, and from expelling any K-12 student for willful defiance alone. But San Diego Unified declined to go much further, despite recognizing that the category can cause problems and even as other districts like Los Angeles Unified banned it altogether.

Second, Whitehurst-Payne wants to give students the opportunity to present evidence to “non-administrators” (i.e., someone who is not a principal or vice-principal) during expulsion hearings.

Third, she wants to continue training efforts designed to help teachers work better with special education students. “A lack of training can quickly lead to inappropriate discipline,” she wrote.

Last, she said she would like to continue training principals about how to handle discipline issues.

District A – Northern San Diego

District A is made up of a chunk of northern San Diego that includes Clairemont and Mira Mesa. John Lee Evans, the incumbent, decided not to run again. Crystal Trull, a nonprofit consultant, is running against Sabrina Bazzo, a longtime school volunteer who is backed by the local teacher’s union.

Crystal Trull said it’s important to acknowledge that the disproportionality is a major problem that needs to be addressed

“We’ve seen how suspensions don’t work for kids. They work for adults. When you take a kid out of classroom they’re going to have negative social and emotional impacts,” she said. “Black students really are singled out.”

Trull said she would like to take a deeper look at the data. She wants to find out if particular schools or particular teachers are behind the disparities. If so, those teachers and schools can be better trained and monitored more closely, she said.

Trull also said it’s important to engage Black families. “The whole drumbeat of my campaign is you gotta engage the families, you gotta engage the community. You  need those multiple perspectives. I think the district does a lot of things in a vacuum,” she said.

“What I’ve heard from Black voices is they’ve been saying this is a problem for years. They’re tired of talking. We have to do something about it and be engaged and active,” she said.

Sabrina Bazzo said she believes strengthening schools as community institutions is one important way to bring down Black student suspension rates.

“I definitely feel like we need to address it and make sure those suspension rates are going down,” she said.

One of the most important planks in Bazzo’s campaign is her support of “community schools” – which is an education theory that says schools should be centers of the community that provide not just education, but health care, green space and other community services for anyone who lives nearby. It also focuses on parent involvement.

She said increased parent involvement along with increased community services at San Diego’s schools could help bring down suspension rates for Black students.

Bazzo also said the district should focus on implicit bias training for staff, doing more restorative justice programs and bringing more teachers of color into classrooms.

District D – Southern San Diego

District D is composed of several neighborhoods from Barrio Logan to North Park. Richard Barrera has represented the area since 2008. He is running against Camille Harris, a write-in candidate who teaches education at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Camille Harris was hesitant to use the term “systemic racism,” but she did say discrimination happens in San Diego schools. She pointed to several reasons the suspensions may be happening. Class sizes are often too big and teachers don’t have enough support, she said. Teachers also may not understand that students have something going on at home that is causing them to behave a certain way, she said.

Harris suggested one way to lower the suspension rates for Black students would be to lower class sizes and also to have more counselors. She also said it’s important to train teachers to see what students actually need (whether it be a meal or help with a problem at home) rather than suspend them for acting out.

Harris, who is Latina, said she herself has been treated differently just because of the way she looks.

Harris said she would want to bring Black families together to talk about what’s happening, if she’s elected. She thinks it’s important to give Black families a loud voice at the table and make sure the solutions they’re looking for are honored.

Richard Barrera started by saying, “If you see, like we do, disparities in student discipline for Black students, our starting point should be an assumption that it’s an example of institutional racism in our district. We should assume that the same institutional racist practices that happen in society are carried onto our schools’ campuses.”

I pointed out that San Diego Unified has had disparities in Black student discipline for many years and that district officials have known about it. I asked him if there had been sustained energy to fix the problem. “It’s come and gone, to be honest,” he said.

School districts are always dealing with a burning issue of the day, Barrera said. The pandemic, for instance, could easily take up all the district’s bandwidth. But the current protests for racial justice are forcing district officials to deal with problems they otherwise might not. Similar moments after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner also provoked action, he said.

Keeping a sustained focus on the data would help to bring it down, Barrera said, but it wouldn’t create systemic change.

He wants to create something that will. Barrera wants to create an independent citizen’s oversight committee to deal with racial disparities in the district. “A structure like that would mean that these issues more regularly get kept in the spotlight,” he said.

The committee would be able to request data from San Diego Unified administrators and be able to report that data out to the public, Barrera said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the candidate who supports the concept of “community schools;” that candidate is Sabrina Bazzo.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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