Schools exploring alternatives to suspensions

Thousands of kids get sent home from San Francisco’s public schools every year for disciplinary reasons — a disproportionate number of them black students.

Seeking alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, school board members are considering a range of policies that would shift the way student discipline is handled — a program that officials say would cost about $2 million districtwide.

Last year, 3,500 students were suspended, according to data from the San Francisco Unified School District. Although black students made up 12.3 percent of the district population, they accounted for half of the suspensions.

Some say part of the problem stems from a system that leaves it up to the principals and deans at each school whether a student should be sent home.

Balboa High School social studies teacher Michael Rosenberg said suspensions at the school “appear very arbitrary.”

Due to gang problems at the school, students get sent home for wearing red or blue, he said.

“There’s no real breakdown of what leads to what,” Rosenberg said.

On Tuesday, the board will discuss and possibly approve a resolution co-sponsored by Commissioner Jane Kim called “In Support of a Comprehensive School Climate, Restorative Justice, and Alternatives to Suspensions/Expulsions.” Its passage would trigger pilot programs such as peer discipline courts.

“This is not a blame game,” said Kim. “Part of it is that we need to have consistent policy.”

The pilot programs would begin at many of the district’s middle schools and would experiment with ways to engage and interact with problem students without suspending them, Associate Superintendent Trish Bascom said. After a trial period, the board would decide if the programs should be extended.

Jay Kozak, a counselor at George Washington High School, said that when he was a counselor at rough middle schools in the district, sometimes suspensions were too swift.

“Kids were being sent home, but they weren’t being officially suspended. Then you don’t have to report it as an official suspension,” Kozak said.

Commissioner Jill Wynns said creating new systems for working through student problems would help to counteract old disciplinary reactions that sent students out of the classroom.

“I can’t tell you how many times we have to expel someone because we had to get one kid away from a group,” she said.

Lopsided outcomes

In the San Francisco Unified School District, African-American students are suspended in disproportionate numbers

  K-5 6-8 9-12 2008-09 Total
Black student suspensions 406    760     625    1,791
Total suspensions    625     1,549     1,404     3,578
Percentage of black students in district    11.7    9.6    12.3    12.3
Percentage of black students suspended    65.0    49.0    45.0    50.0

Total suspensions per year:

2001-02  1,722

’02-03  2,428

’03-04  2,677

’04-05  2,868

’05-06  3,295

’06-07  n/a

’07-08  ’08-09

4,128  3,578

Source: San Francisco Unified School District

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

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