San Francisco kids may still misbehave at school, but whether they get suspended is another matter.
That’s because there has been a significant shift away from zero-tolerance punishment like suspensions and expulsions at public schools in San Francisco in recent years. In fact, the latest data from the San Francisco Unified School District shows a more than 40 percent cut in the number of students suspended compared to the three years prior.
But the downward trend appears to have come to a halt.
In the 2014-15 school year, SFUSD reported slight upticks in both the individual number of kids taken out of school or the classroom for acting poorly and the total number of suspensions, which includes students who are suspended more than once.
The district attributed the increase in the number of students suspended in part to its improved recording of suspensions.
But the district apparently has not shied away from traditional punishments like suspensions altogether, including using suspension to punish students for “willful defiance.”
In fall 2014, district policy was changed so that kids could no longer be suspended for being disruptive or refusing to obey orders. Despite the new policy, 61 students were suspended last school year for willful defiance.
This is problematic for those who believe suspensions and other forms of zero-tolerance punishments lead youths from schools and toward a life behind bars — down a path known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Many children are coming in experiencing a lot of trauma outside of schools and they might be expressing that through their behavior,” said Board of Education President Matt Haney. “The question is, are we intentional about building systems and interventions that actually have some chance of working, or are we using short-termed punitive approaches that are doomed to fail?”
While the district suspended 1,468 kids in 2011-12, in the 2014-15 school year just 859 students were suspended, according to data provided by the SFUSD to the California Department of Education. SFUSD suspended 809 students in 2013-14.
Total suspensions — a figure which includes students who were suspended more than once — also increased by fewer than 50 suspensions, according to Thomas Graven, executive director of the district’s Student, Family & Community Support Department.
But Graven said the upward shift in the data doesn’t necessarily mean more students are being suspended.
“We have found and remedied some sites where suspensions were not completed correctly in the online system or were done with the old paper method,” Graven wrote in an email to the San Francisco Examiner. “As we put those into the new system, we saw a bump.”
The new data input system is just one part of a district policy called Safe and Supportive Schools, which was introduced by Haney and approved by the Board of Education in February 2014. Under the policy, which focuses on preventing bad behavior in the first place, students are supposed to be counseled instead of kicked out of school.
Schools in the district are now focused on building trust and rewarding good behavior as opposed to punishing bad behavior, according to Haney. That could mean holding weekly assemblies where well-behaved students are rewarded with tickets, for example.
Teachers also have access to coaches for help with interventions and training on restorative justice practices under the policy. When on campuses, those coaches also act as “eyes and ears” for the district, noting when particular students need to be referred to mental health services or behaviorists, Haney said.
These practices work alongside the new data system introduced with the policy to track suspensions at its schools to see which campuses need more attention and resources.
The system lets the district track punitive measures like suspensions, expulsions and referrals, as well as positive steps like interventions and “restorative practices circles and conferences,” according to the policy.
Kevine Boggess, director of policy with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, is critical of how the policy has rolled out thus far and said the district has more work to do to reduce suspensions.
“What we would like to see is a trained staff person come into that classroom and support that teacher to de-escalate the situation,” when a student is being disruptive, Boggess said.
But given what Boggess described as a lack of resources at schools that prevents extra staff support for every teacher, the alternative is to move a student to another classroom.
Safe and Supportive schools was spurred into fruition by the district’s “terrible history with overpunishing black students,” Haney said.
Racial disparities in the district’s use of suspensions have persisted despite the significant decrease in use over the years. Last school year, 341 of the 859 students who were suspended are black, while another 290 are Latino and 45 are white.
Black students were also 45 percent of the total fall 2015 suspensions — a count which includes students who were suspended multiple times — while making up just 9 percent of the student population in the district. Latino youths represented 30 percent of the students suspended during the same time, and 29 percent of students in the district.
Expulsions have also dropped in the past five years — from 29 in 2011-12 to seven in the most recent school year, according to the district.
This story is one in a two-part series that explores the use of suspensions in the San Francisco Unified School District. Check back next Sunday for the second part.