Richmond students may no longer face suspension for failing to follow instructions or disobeying a teacher’s orders — a disciplinary practice that education advocates say disproportionately affects students of color and causes cash-strapped schools to lose out on funding.
The West Contra Costa Unified School Board will consider joining a handful of districts in the state that have restricted suspensions to more serious offenses and eliminated the punishment for "willful defiance," a catch-all category of misbehavior that can include using a phone in class, dress code violations and more severe transgressions such as swearing at a teacher.
California already eliminated willful defiance suspensions for students in kindergarten through third grade, but the proposal in West County would extend the ban to include protections for K-12 students. The policy, which has already been adopted by San Francisco and Oakland schools, is up for consideration at the May 10 board meeting.
Data has repeatedly shown that the suspension practice unfairly targets students of color, particularly African American boys. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education sent a guidance letter about how some disciplinary actions may violate students’ civil rights.
"In our investigations we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students," the letter reads. "In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem."
That problem is especially acute in West County, one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the Bay. A review of the 2014-2015 academic year shows that 37 percent of all suspensions in its schools were for willful defiance. African American students make up 18 percent of the student body, but received close to 40 percent of those suspensions.
School board member Mister Phillips, who introduced the proposal, said the statistics show "glaring disparities" in how the policy has been applied.
"It’s completely subjective," he said. "One student may be suspended in a situation for willful defiance, and then another student in the same situation is not suspended. It’s blatant discrimination."
He said the state legislation, set to expire in 2018, is too vague and leaves students in grades four and above unprotected. He also noted that African American students are the lowest performing subgroup in the district, and argued that keeping students in school is a necessary step toward increasing their academic achievement.
"Often times when we talk about making sure they’re in class, the first thing that people think about is truancy and cutting, but if you are suspending them disproportionately, that also means they’re not in class," he said. "They’re missing instruction time. They’re falling behind their peers. They’re not getting learning opportunities."
Suspensions also prevent California public schools from collecting crucial state funds. When a student is absent, regardless of the reason, the school loses money from the state for Average Daily Attendance (ADA). Contra Costa County, which has one of the worst truancy ratings in the state, lost more than $36 million in ADA funding in 2015.
United Teachers of Richmond, a union representing more than 1,600 educators, is not opposed to the ban, but its president did say that more discussion and collaboration with teachers is needed before the policy is considered for approval.
"The problem is that the board member Phillips, who put in this resolution, has not spoken to teachers," union president Demetrio Gonzalez said. "Even though it’s well intentioned, it has no teacher oversight behind it. It goes hand in hand. The people that this is going to affect the most, aside from students, is educators...they need to be part of the conversation."
He believes the best course of action is for public advocates, the district, and teachers to come together to create better policies that address the racial disparity, though he conceded that it may take more time and possibly more funding for wraparound or counseling services.
"I’m glad (Phillips) raised the issue, but now we just need to work with everyone to create a right path for it to move forward," Gonzalez said.
Facing criticism for not consulting with teachers, Phillips said that the issue — discrimination — is a "no brainer."
"I submitted this proposal because I believe it was the right thing to do," he said. "It never crossed my mind to call somebody and to ask them if it was okay for me to put forward a proposal that is going to end discriminatory discipline in our district."