September 8, 2006

Sensitivity May Solve Suspension Rate Among Latino Students

District staff optimistic about creating cultural awareness

By Raymond R. Beltran

While 300,000 students returned to school this week, teacher Pamela Moorehead lost about half of her twenty students, all having returned to comparative schools that they were expelled from in City Heights.

She is a teacher at Summit, a Juvenile Court and Community School on 39th and University Avenue and some of her students, mostly Latino and two African Americans, have been expelled from district schools for offenses relating to either extremely violent offenses or drugs.

Though the class is small, the demographic points to a broader, ongoing issue in San Diego City Schools, where black and Latinos have the highest rates of suspensions and expulsions in the county. Critics claim socio-economic issues and cultural insensitivity.

“There are teachers that aren’t culturally sensitive,” says Moorehead, an educator who earned the County Office of Education Teacher of the Year Award this year. “And there are other teachers who are just fearful. They see how these students dress, or they see a young black male, big, and they think ‘gangs.’ Preconceived ideas and notions happen, and that plays a part.”

Award winning educator Pamela Moorehead teaches at Juvenile Court and Community School in City Heights where expelled students, mostly Latino, attend school for up to a year. Photo by R. Beltran

Latinos and African Americans share two of the top three highest rates of suspensions, along with Native Americans, according to the district’s data. Ten of every one hundred Latinos are suspended, and for a group that makes up 45 percent of the entire student population, the rate is alarming.

Expulsions aren’t categorized by race, but data shows that black and Latino schools like Emerson Bandini Elementary on Logan Avenue, middle schools like Keiller, Gompers, Memorial and Mann, and high schools like Crawford, Madison, and Point Loma all share the highest rates of expulsions in the county. Point Loma’s demographics show a 45 percent rate of Spanish speakers among ninth graders, a number that dwindles to 10 percent by senior year.

Though Moorehead’s class has students with violent offenses, the leading cause of expulsions in the city is “defying the authority of school personnel,” according to the California Department of Education. The CDE indicates that in 2004, of 717 recommendations to expel a student for this offense, 651 were sustained.

Some teachers, from the Sherman Heights and Barrio Logan areas, who spoke to La Prensa San Diego under anonymity, agree that ‘defiance’ is an extremely loose term and has been grossly abused in minority schools with the help of zero tolerance.

The Zero Tolerance Policy, originally known as the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, mandates “one calendar year of expulsion for any student bringing a firearm to school.” The federal policy, under No Child Left Behind, empowers local districts and principals to add to the zero tolerance list of offenses things like ‘defiance,’ and suspensions and expulsions witnessed by critics have been due to anything from clothing attire to an incident where a student at Memorial Academy (Sherman Heights) bumped into school staff.

Weapons offenses leading to expulsions numbered 411 in 2004, far below that of ‘defiance.’

The CDE website reads, “A zero tolerance study conducted by the Civil Rights project at Harvard University states that, in addition to the risk of students being unfairly punished, a disproportionate number of minority students are being affected by zero tolerance policies.”

“In San Diego, [the expulsion rate] is far too high,” says new Associate Superintendent of Parent and Student Involvement Dorothy Harper. “I don’t know why. Are we making sure kids, teachers, and parents are aware of what we’re expecting as far as behavior?”

Harper says, to start, teachers could clarify classroom etiquette for students by explaining to student what the classroom behavior expectations are and possibly greet students by the classroom door immediately after lunch time, when, studies show, students are more likely to be reprimanded for disruption.

“It’s about educating and supporting our kids, right? None of this is rocket science. It’s about awareness and clarity and supporting through intervention,” she adds.

Harper’s position was created three months ago to employ a district staffer to educate the community about programs that cater to students with supplemental needs. That in itself is a progressive step by the new superintendent, Carl Cohn, according to Agin Shaheed of the Race and Human Relations and Advocacy Program, a district department that fosters cultural awareness and behavior intervention on campuses with multiple suspension rates.

Shaheed notes that with the previous Bersin Administration, two years ago, reading and the Academic Progress Index API tests were the districts main concerns. Issues surrounding behavior intervention and the socio-economic baggage poor students bring to school were being severely neglected.

For example, Moorehead points out that many of her students break JCCS policy and bring backpacks to school because they fear being seen in City Heights with academic materials. It may be a sign of weakness on the streets. Her students experience gang violence throughout their childhood and grow into it in their adult life. Drugs are more prevalent than in affluent neighborhoods, and parents are working a handful of jobs.

An optimistic Shaheed says, “Now, we’re looking at what’s happening with Latinos in a broad sense with cultural relevant instructional strategies.”

Among many steps to remedy the issues, Race and Human Relations introduces the Hombre Noble, a retreat program young Latino males attend to express themselves through dialogue as ethnic youth growing up in poor conditions. Shaheed also highlights his department for programs such as Peace Ambassador, where students’ peers are trained to befriend each other in hopes of diverting disruptive behavior in troubling times.

He points out that the inflated population of suspended Latinos also needs to be looked at with objectivity in that Latinos do make up an extremely larger group in San Diego, but he does note that for the total white population earning below poverty wages, 67 percent of them live a middle class lifestyle, a ‘white privilege’ he says directly contributes to the suspension rates among non-whites.

Our Village is another intervention program where students and teachers alike gather at a school with multiple suspension rates, divide up into ethnic groups and openly discuss the prejudices that plague their communities. The idea is to find more similarities than differences among multicultural groups. Shaheed found that in schools who practiced Our Village [Farb Middle, Gompers, and Crawford], disruptive incidents that red flagged the schools diminished within weeks.

“If we were able to adopt an Our Village in every school, would that have an impact on schools in the district,?” he asks. “I’d have to say yes.”

In her twenty four year career, teacher Pamela Moorehead has mourned the deaths of four students due to gang violence and two due to pregnancy altercations, yet she prides herself on the fact that her students at Summit carry twice the burden than wealthier schools and continue to meet state standards.

“We can’t afford not to teach them,” she says. “I get so enamored when I hear that they are the future. Well, I say that they are the here and now, otherwise, we don’t have to worry about the future.”

New to her position, Associate Superintendent Dorothy Harper says she will be visiting schools with multiple suspension and expulsion rates in coming weeks to begin collecting data to implement and educate campuses about intervention strategies suggested by the Race and Human Relations Program.

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