Oakland Strikes Bargain with DOE to Reduce Suspensions

Since a U.S. Department of Education data release that showed that black and Hispanic students were more likely to receive the most severe punishments for disciplinary infractions – such as suspension and expulsion – than their white and Asian peers, school districts across the country have taken steps to address the imbalance. In Oakland, in order to avoid a civil rights investigation into its disciplinary practices, the school board has voted to accept a federal monitor to oversee how its 38 schools are working to bring the down the number of suspensions given out to minority students — and black boys in particular.

The monitors will remain in place until at least 2017. In exchange for allowing them access, the investigation into the district will be closed as the DoE looks into why black boys attending schools in Oakland were subject to suspensions at almost six time the rates of white boys.

“Historically, they have been the whipping boys in our district,” Chris Chatmon, executive director of the district’s African-American Male Achievement Office, said in a presentation to the board. “We are here today to ante up and reclaim our children.”

The 28-page resolution approved by the board in a 6-0 vote outlines a five-year plan to address the needs of students in the 38 schools, including a requirement to offer mentoring, teacher training, parent education and programs to address the impact of trauma and community violence on student behavior.

The San Francisco Gate is reporting that the resolution includes more than just oversight provisions. It also lays out an approach to discipline called “restorative justice,” which attempts to correct misbehavior via methods short of suspensions. Some believe that reducing the time the black students are removed from their classes due to being suspended could lead to achievement gains, since missing classes due to a suspension often hampers academic progress. Restorative justice focuses on keeping kids in school and in class by liaising with the students’ parents or guardians in order to work together to correct behavior.

District Superintendent Tony Smith said the agreement is a powerful and positive step that will force Oakland – regardless of who is elected to the school board or who is running the schools – to stay on track in reducing suspensions.

“The agreement codified efforts already in place,” he said. “Everything that’s in there, the board has already approved.”

Although district officials welcome efforts to reduce the number of suspensions in schools, they have expressed reservations about the effort and cost involved in complying with the resolution. As part of the requirements, the district will be required to maintain extensive documentation to prove that they are complying with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. District Superintendent Tony Smith said that he hopes to solicit help from private and community groups in bringing about real change in the district disciplinary policy — and that efforts in Oakland could some day serve as a model for other states and districts struggling with the same problem.

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