San Diego Unified School District pursues anti-racism reforms

San Diego Unified School District file photo

The San Diego Unified School District board voted to ban future “willful defiance” suspensions for all middle school students and to implement a host of other reforms at an online school board workshop on racial equity July 22.

California currently prohibits willful-defiance suspensions for elementary and middle grades, but there is a five-year sunset on the ban for middle grades. The district will discuss banning such suspensions for high school students in the future.

Among other promised school reforms announced by district officials were commitments to:

  • Write a new de-escalation policy and require de-escalation training for school police by the end of next month
  • Require that all use-of-force incidents by school police be formally reviewed, including by the school police chief
  • Train all educators on anti-bias and cultural responsiveness starting next month
  • Train panelists who hire staff for schools and district departments in mitigating bias
  • Increase the number of diverse candidates chosen for positions
  • Change grading policies to give students chances to correct their work or improve their grades
  • Increase enrollment in ethnic studies courses and enable students to enroll in Advanced Placement courses not offered at their school

The board also voted to create a position for a diversity inclusion officer who would work to recruit more students to become educators in the district and improve inclusion for current district educators.
The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that followed have led many school systems, including San Diego Unified, to examine how their practices may perpetuate racial inequities.

District officials said racial disparities for black and Hispanic students are evident in the four areas the board workshop focused on: staff diversity, curriculum, grading and discipline. The disparities are part of patterns that extend statewide and nationwide.

For instance, black students made up 8 percent of San Diego Unified’s enrollment in 2018-19 but 21 percent of its suspensions, according to state data.

District data from the 2018-19 school year show that 5 percent of teachers were black while about 8 percent of students were black. Eighteen percent of teachers were Latino while 44 percent of students were Latino. About a quarter of students were white, though 66 percent of teachers were white.

More district data revealed July 22 show that black students, Latino students, English-learners and students with disabilities are all significantly more likely than white students to receive D and F grades.

Black and Latino students receive D and F grades roughly 20 percent of the time. White students receive D’s and F’s 7 percent of the time, which is below the district average of about 15 percent.

Kate Papen, a senior at Mount Everest Academy, said she sees racial biases in student discipline carry over into the classroom citizenship grades students receive for behavior.

“As children growing up, we’re taught that grades are metrics not just for the knowledge that we’ve learned but also for success and even our value,” Papen said during the board workshop. “And this is dangerous in and of itself, but it becomes even more detrimental when considering the unfair and unequal grading system.”

The district’s planned reforms switch the focus from punishing students to developing trust and giving students chances to correct mistakes.

For example, district leaders said they want to change F grades, which mean failure, to be “not yet” complete, which means a student will have a chance to master topics and earn a better grade.

District leaders also said schools must support students before pushing them out of school via suspensions or expulsions. For example, schools can give students chances to change their behavior, teach students mindfulness, provide mentors and examine whether a student was referred for discipline due to racial or gender biases.

The district also is expanding the number of ethnic studies courses; it already decided to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement by next school year. It also is training teachers on how to teach in a culturally responsive way, officials said.

Wendy Ranck-Buhr, an instructional support officer for the district, said San Diego Unified has rewritten its history courses to include perspectives of historically marginalized groups.

“In order for us to become an anti-racist and socially just system, we must also work to humanize and de-colonize both our curriculum and our instructional practices,” Ranck-Buhr said.

Some students had called for the complete defunding of the district’s school police department, saying many black and Latino students don’t feel safe with police on campus and that police show biases against people of color.

The district is focusing on reforming the school police rather than removing it.

“We wanted to step back and take a broader look at what is the proper role of police in our schools,” said San Diego Unified board President John Lee Evans.

The district’s chief business officer, Greg Ottinger, said the school police department made 208 arrests in 2018-19, up from 154 the year before.

“We know that collectively we can take actions that help shape a system that decreases any need to arrest any students,” he said at the board workshop.

The district will form a committee of students and staff, including school police, to recommend changes to the school police department.

The school board also voted to create an independent citizens oversight committee to regularly monitor and report on the district’s progress on racial equity. Trustee Richard Barrera proposed forming the committee to hold the district accountable.

“We’ve had this conversation so many times before ... these are not new issues and these are frankly not new strategies and these are certainly not new data points,” Barrera said.


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