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Sacramento needs to stop suspending black students and start supporting them

Tremaine Newton walks to class at Luther Burbank High School in the Sacramento City Unified School District. He’s among only 12 percent of African American students in the international baccalaureate program, in a district with inordinate suspension rates for black males.
Tremaine Newton walks to class at Luther Burbank High School in the Sacramento City Unified School District. He’s among only 12 percent of African American students in the international baccalaureate program, in a district with inordinate suspension rates for black males. rbenton@sacbee.com

As my mother battled terminal cancer nearly two years ago she expressed her greatest fear: She was terrified of leaving her young black grandson behind in a world where black boys were still discriminated against, disproportionately disciplined, and gunned down at alarming rates.

It was easy to understand why these concerns consumed my mother’s last days.

In the wake of the racially charged science project at McClatchy High School and the Stephon Clark shooting, we have a mandate to take action before we fail another generation of black youth.

While in preschool, my son received frequent “incident reports” detailing inappropriate use of his hands and feet. His teacher also openly worried that he was physically bigger and stronger than his classmates.

Then one day, I witnessed him playing with a white classmate in the sandbox. The white child threw sand at him repeatedly before my son finally chased the boy away. The teacher immediately blamed my son, pulling him to a time-out corner, and scolding him loudly.

That was the first time that I realized her language around his physical build held racial innuendo. With crystal clarity, I came to recognize that she viewed my son as aggressive while the white boy was simply energetic. I went home and cried.

I began researching race and implicit bias in education and learned that, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection, black boys were three times more likely to be suspended from school than their white peers. I also learned that black children accounted for nearly half of all preschool suspensions and were often flagged for challenging behaviors overlooked in white classmates.

Fearful that my son was about to become a statistic, I pulled him out of his class mid-year.

I was shocked by the brokenness of the system. A system that perpetuated a troubling cycle of poverty and incarceration by failing our students as early as preschool.

A recent report out of San Diego State University found that Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) had the most egregious suspension rates of black males in California. Furthermore, black males are among SCUSD’s lowest performing student populations.

I am outraged by these statistics. We can and must do better to repair a centuries-old system that is inequitable by design.

SCUSD’s new superintendent has established equity and access as the backbone of the district’s work, focusing on grade level readiness. Recognizing that our black community is in crisis, he should prioritize closing the achievement gap between black students and their white peers.

The board and district leadership must recommit to supporting the excellence of black youth from preschool through college completion.

This begins with launching an African American Achievement Initiative dedicated to the following:

  • Reforming and strengthening school discipline policies including enacting an immediate ban on willful defiance suspensions.
  • Developing a culturally competent, equity-based Student Bill of Rights, crafted with input from Sacramento area youth.
  • Scaling restorative practices and positive behavior interventions districtwide.
  • Offering training and support in culturally responsive teaching and trauma-informed practices.

In the wake of the racially charged science project at McClatchy High School and the Stephon Clark shooting, we have a mandate to take action before we fail another generation of black youth.

While my mother is no longer with us, I am determined to do what I can to disrupt her greatest fear by dismantling the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Our children deserve nothing less.

Jessie Ryan is president of the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education. She can be contacted at jessie-ryan@scusd.edu.

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