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State panel tries to chart a new course for young men of color

Stanley O. Williford | 3/7/2012, 5 p.m.

Perhaps Manual Arts student Joshua Ham said it best when he attempted to walk the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color in California through a day in his school life.

He talked of the police cars around the campus, the helicopter flying overhead, the gates around the campus, searches by school security guards and cops patrolling the grounds. . . .

"How can we truly be expected to achieve at a high academic level when we're treated more like we're in prison than in school?" he asked.

Ham hit on at least two of the recurring issues of the hearing--the presence of police on and around school campuses and the feeling of being a prisoner. But there were other issues as well: the high rate of suspensions of boys of color, unfair treatment, and the feeling that youth of color are being railroaded into the criminal justice system.

Youth leader Carlos Gomez of InnerCity Struggle said plainly that young men of color are usually treated with "a lack of respect and made to feel uncomfortable and not appreciated."

Almost all of the comments depicted a school system and minority young men in crisis. And there was little disagreement from the packed audience at Comrie Hall at the Expo Center near the campus of USC during the hearing on Friday.

Some of the information might prove shocking to the general public. For instance, Bob K. Ross, M.D., of the California Endowment, told the gathering, that this year more men of color will be receiving their GEDs inside prison than from high schools.

Manuel Criollo of the Community Strategy Center called the school system "guilty of undereducation and overincarceration. We need a serious effort to reduce suspensions," he said, and noted that authorities were guilty of applying "double punishment" in issuing both suspensions as well as tickets for truancy. However, he applauded the recent "pull-back" of a student curfew [truancy] law.

"Remove police from school, from school discipline issues," said Criollo. "Turn school conduct issues back to the schools."

The theme of the hearing was "Charting a New Vision for a New California by Investing in Black, Latino and Southeast Asian Boys and Young Men." The committee was chaired by Assemblyman Sandre R. Swanson, Assemblyman from the 16th district, which includes the Oakland-Alameda area.

He assured the gathering that the Select Committee took "these hearing very seriously. The suggestions you make to us are very important," he said.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson of the Community Coalition noted that the coalition sees two systems that lead to the criminal justice system: the child foster care system and the education system. "Every time a student gets suspended or expelled their likelihood of dropping out increases tenfold," he said.

Harris-Dawson said 85 percent of suspensions are in the "category of defiance," which he said was based largely on the mood of the instructor.

The Rev. Dr. Clyde W. Oden Jr., senior pastor at Bryan Temple A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, warned the panel that they needed to know that there were interests groups "betting millions of dollars that you will fail at 'charting a new course.