School board approves plan to address civil rights complaints over student suspensions
on September 28, 2012
In a crowded boardroom and to strong applause, the Oakland school board unanimously passed an agreement Thursday that resolved to address problems cited in the federal Office of Civil Rights’ (OCR) review of the district’s discipline of African American students. The district intends to implement the agreement, created in collaboration with the OCR, in two phases over the next five years.
The agreement, or “voluntary resolution plan,” focuses on a list of 38 Oakland schools, including Oakland Tech, Claremont Middle School and Sankofa Academy in North Oakland, where district officials intend to revise their discipline policies, develop discipline training programs for school staff, and conduct discussion and information sessions for students and parents.
“When the patient is ill, you attack the sickest part to help the entire body improve,” said Troy Flint, the school district’s director of public relations, before the meeting. “This initiative will benefit the entire student body, not just a segment of the population.”
The OCR’s compliance review came at the same time as a 2012 report by the Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland-based non-profit that provides educational and health and employment services to families. The report found that one in ten African American boys in Oakland elementary schools, one in three in middle schools and one in five in high schools were suspended at least once during the 2010-2011 school year. Of the African American males who had multiple suspensions, 44 percent were suspended solely for “defying authority,” according to the report, which could mean talking back to a teacher or disrupting a class.
The report also stated that, while white male students collectively missed fewer than 250 school days due to suspension in 2010-2011, African American male students missed almost 6,000 school days in the same year. The report used the average cost of suspension to estimate that the district suffered a loss of approximately $160,000 in state funds, which are allocated to schools based on student attendance, due to the suspension of African American males, who comprise about 17 percent of the student population.
The report stated that there are likely “treatment” issues at OUSD schools that are causing excessive suspension rates for African American males, and suggested that teachers may mistakenly perceive a threat from these students. “The norms of animated expression and close interpersonal interaction may be misinterpreted by teachers as dangerous or aggressive behavior,” the report’s authors wrote.
Though there isn’t a detailed plan yet for how to implement the agreement, the first phase involves the creation of a “Voluntary Resolution Plan team” that will collaborate with education experts and implement the guidelines provided. The team will be charged with designing effective processes for each school, creating a discipline handbook and using it to train teachers, and establishing a reliable way to track progress.
Many of the approximately 200 community members who attended Thursday’s school board meeting said that the agreement could be a step in the right direction. Bernadette Tatom, the mother of a sophomore at Castlemont High School, said that some of her son’s teachers are intimidated by him due to his height.
“He had a Spanish teacher who would put him out of class every time he asked a question or felt he was being treated unjustly,” Tatom said. “It’s like telling your kids, ‘If you speak your mind, you’re going to be put out of school.’ That’s not right.”
Jason Seals, a teacher at Fremont High School, said that the agreement was a step forward for correcting teachers’ biases. “I’m in support of it, I’m in support of the leadership. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not the end-all, be-all,” he said.
But there were some community members at the meeting who said they want the district to focus more on those African American students who aren’t at risk of suspension. A few spoke about what they see as academic discrimination at schools that have a student body majority that is African American.
“We’re talking about discipline and black students and everyone jumps up and down, but we’re forgetting academics,” said Wandra Boyd, a parent of four and former school district employee. “We need to think about AP classes and college prep classes for schools with a majority of African American students.”
After unanimously approving the agreement, the board also voted 5-2 to approve a notice of violation that will be sent to the governing board of the American Indian Model Schools (AIMS) for allegedly failing to properly maintain the finances of the three charter schools it controls: the American Indian Public High School, the American Indian Public Charter School and the American Indian Public Charter School II.
According to a Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) report presented to AIMS one week ago, the founder of AIMS, Ben Chavis, and his spouse, Marsha Amador, personally realized “approximately $3.9 million in financial benefit through contracts and other financial arrangements.” The report cites agenda items, such as updates on the American Indian Public Charter School II lease with Lumbee Holdings, a private company owned by Chavis himself, from AIMS board meetings from 2009 to July 2012 that allegedly fail to “disclose the founder’s financial interest.”
Other violations alleged in the FCMAT report include failing to follow bylaws for electing and removing board members, and failing to include mention of closed sessions on board meeting agendas. The FCMAT report also states that instead of electing parents of current students to serve on the Family Advisory Committee, the parents on the committee were chosen by Chavis himself, and only one had a child currently attending an AIMS school. The governing board of AIMS now has until November 28, 2012 to review the notice of violation and address the concerns in writing.
The next steps for the district’s agreement with the Office of Civil Rights are somewhat complicated. Though both the report and the compliance review became an issue for the district this year, Superintendent Tony Smith had previously recognized the need to address the disparity between the educational experience of African American male students and other students. Smith created the Office of African American Male Achievement as part of OUSD’s strategic plan when he took on his position as superintendent in 2010.
The office, which will focus on increasing attendance and graduation rates of African American male students, is planning to work with the district in implementing the plan, said its director, Chris Chatmon, before the board meeting. Chatmon said that his office has already been working with a few Oakland middle and high schools to implement “voluntary school study teams,” where students, parents and community members can meet share their experiences and find ways for schools to improve. He has also found success with “manhood development classes” for African American males, which focus on writing and communication skills, as well as on improving students’ interactions with their peers and adults. Now, he’s hoping to apply these new programs to other Oakland schools.
“OUSD has adults who are afraid of our children or who have low expectations of them,” said Chatmon. “Hopefully, this new agreement will provide more resources to us so this can spread to more schools.”
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