A second look at the rate of African American suspensions

Sikivu Hutchinson | 9/14/2011, 5 p.m.

As an assistant principal with 29 years of experience in South L.A. schools, John Alvarez knows the drill.

Amongst some teachers and administrators in the LAUSD there is a clear ethnic pecking order based on "good minority versus bad minority demonization." He says, "In the world of schools, Latinos are (regarded as) the quiet ones, they don't speak the language so you can bamboozle them with worksheets. Black students demand more from their teachers. I've heard over and over again, 'give me all Latino students' from the weaker teachers. They seem to harbor that racist mentality."

The racist mentality that Alvarez [not his real name] refers to goes directly to the issue of racial disproportionality in suspensions. In a district that is facing one of its worst fiscal and moral crises in decades, suspension disproportionality underscores the relationship between school cultures that program Black students to fail and the apartheid criminalization of Black youth.

Nonetheless, discussing the micro-politics of race in the classroom is a third-rail taboo to school bureaucrats long accustomed to lumping Black and Brown students together in one dysfunctional pot. The neo-liberal charter school juggernaut, the high stakes testing regime, declining Black enrollment, bulging juvenile detention centers and a negligible Black presence on the Los Angeles school board have essentially marginalized a Black agenda in the LAUSD.

This deficit is set against the backdrop of national data that is crystal clear: Black kids spend more time in the dean's office, more time being opportunity-transferred to other campuses and more time in and out of juvenile detention facilities, regardless of whether they come from "Leave it to Beaver" homes, foster care or homeless shelters.

Reflecting on her tenure at South L.A. and South Bay schools, Linda Watts, a retired LAUSD administrator, remarked that Black students were routinely sent to the office for "defiance." On balance, "African Americans go to the dean's office for less serious offenses than do Latinos and Whites. Whites and Latinos will get counseled and sent back to the classroom. It seems to me that it's a step to get them out of the classrooms."

The push-out that Watts sees in the district at large is exemplified by schools like Fairfax High.

With its polyglot racial makeup, Fairfax High has historically had a reputation as one of the more culturally eclectic "artsy" schools. It has a predominantly Latino population and a multiracial mix of Black, White and Asian Pacific Islander students. Yet African Americans at Fairfax were suspended nearly 2 1/2 times their number in the general school population.

According to one former Fairfax teacher, "If you were to happen onto the sporty side of campus during the after-lunch class periods, you would think Fairfax was a 95-percent African American school, given all the students 'hanging out' over there.... Not the athletes, as I assume that they were off exercising somewhere, but their 'friends' who just don't go to fifth- and/or sixth-period classes.... It was quite the shocking thing for me to observe.... They are hiding in plain sight."