SONS AND BROTHERS
Out of every 100 Black Boys, 33 Will Go To Prison, the California “Sons and Brothers” Program Aims to Change That
by Matthew Fleischer
“Christian” was in middle school when the bullying began. Before school, during, after — it didn’t matter. He had a target on his back.*
“I was getting bullied everyday,” he says. “I used to show up late so that those kids would already be in class by the time I got there. But most of the time it didn’t matter.”
So he stayed home. His grades plummeted. His immigrant parents were too busy struggling to support the family to keep close tabs on him.
Things got worse before they got better.
“I started hanging out with some people I shouldn’t have. Some gang members. I didn’t join. But I was definitely associated with them. I needed protection.”
According to violence prevention experts, needing protection is one of the prime reasons kids take a first step toward gangs.
Christian started getting into trouble. He didn’t sell drugs. But he learned the trade – and he was captivated by the easy money.
“My family had no money. They were working all the time. I thought I might be able to help.”
Prime reason number two.
When he went to school, Christian started acting up. He adopted the attitude of the gang members he was hanging out with. Predictably, he was suspended. He didn’t feel good about it, but it was better than being bullied.
“I knew what I was doing was wrong. But you can’t just leave a gang. They would be like, ‘What, you needed us for protection and now you’re gone?’ That wouldn’t go over too well.”
And so he stayed nominally with the gang and tried to stay out of trouble.
Early in his freshman year at Manual Arts High School in South LA, however, Christian finally figured out a way out of both of his competing problems.. Encouraged by one of his teachers, he began staying long hours after school catching up on his work. He got involved in after school activities – football, the debate club, the robotics club to name just a few. Slowly and delicately, he extracted himself from gang life and put his full efforts into his academics.
Now a 17-year-old senior at Manual Arts, Christian is well on his way to college.
The story of his turnaround is heartening. But, sadly, when it comes to the impact of school suspensions, his tale is an outlier.
According to statistics compiled by the California Endowment, receiving even a single suspension doubles a student’s chances of dropping out. After schools rushed to embrace “zero tolerance” policies in the wake of the April, 1999 Columbine shooting, suspension is still the default form of discipline in most K-12 schools across California and beyond.
In 2006, LAUSD students lost 74,765 days of school time due to suspensions. With all the growing attention to the harm caused to students’ academic outcomes by an overuse of suspensions, the number sank to 26,286 by 2011, but was still large enough to have potentially ruinous effects on thousands of kids –particularly boys of color. (Studies show that African-American boys were 30 times more likely to be suspended than white girls under the strict post-Columbine policies, mostly for discretional non-drug, non-violent offenses. )
Statistics like that one have caused serious reflection among policy makers and education advocates in California, and the issue of suspensions in particular has become paramount.
Nearly 15 years after Columbine, LAUSD and other school districts across California are trying to undo the damage caused by their over active suspension regimes.
Last week, in the gymnasium of Manual Arts, with Christian and other students in attendance, the California Endowment announced a $50 million grant to help these schools across California succeed. Launched under the banner “Sons & Brothers Across California,” the grant will be targeted towards improving the academic fortunes of boys of color by ending unjust suspensions.
Charles Fields, regional program manager for the California Endowment, says the decision to target boys was based on years of collected data.
“When we look at the data, those who are most disconnected from health services, who are the victims or perpetrators of violence, who are incarcerated at highest rate, are black, Latino, Southeast Asian and Native American boys,” says Fields. “If you start with those who are most impacted, there will be a ripple impact for other populations.”
Over 70-percent of all Californians under age 25 are persons of color, according to the 2010 Census. Given those numbers, California Endowment President and CEO Robert Ross, speaking at the Manual Arts press conference, framed his organization’s focus as both a moral imperative, but also as a crucial management decision. “Strategically, we as a state cannot afford to lose this human capital.”
The strategy for ending suspensions, and thereby improving the academic chances for boys of color, isn’t simply about reworking school discipline procedures – although that is essential. Instead, real solutions to behavior issues in secondary school, require a close look upstream to find out how kids are faring academically and emotionally in elementary school.
“A lot of problems we see later in life, we can catch much earlier,” says Fields. “There are warning signs. Folks who are incarcerated generally didn’t graduate high school. They have trouble reading. These are markers you can see when people are younger — pivotal moments in a young person’s trajectory. We as a community need to be mindful of these pivotal movements. 68 percent of black and Latino boys in California are not at reading proficiency by 3rd grade. That is a pivotal time when students transition from learning to read to reading to learn.”
Improving that reading proficiency in early education, the thinking goes, will prevent acting out in middle school, high school and beyond.
Of course, as Christian’s story demonstrates, there are other factors in play: bullying, family issues, violence or trauma experienced in the home or the community, and even simple hunger can cause students to lose their educational focus and slip through the cracks. Acting out in school is often a manifestation of these social/emotional/economic issues, says Fields, which is why suspensions are so counterproductive. They address the symptom, not the cause.
“When we see students getting suspended two or three times, that’s a call for help. They are either getting bullied, walking through gang zones, not getting enough food. They may need mental health support. At that point, where a young person is acting out, we need to figure out, how do we connect them to a mentor or connect their family to social services. Kids who graduate generally don’t end up in prison. So if our schools and community can respond to these students’ needs at these pivotal moments in their lives, we can help end the school-to-prison pipeline we see so regularly.”
California Endowment president Ross admitted during his presser that $50 million is a “drop in the bucket” towards what it will ultimately take to be successful in shifting the discipline culture of California’s schools. But that sum is enough to start a conversation about California’s future – and what it will look like if no action is taken.
“If you walk into a nursery at a hospital and see 100 black male babies, as of now, 33 will wind up in prison. We can’t have that…What the Trayvon Martin event told us is that if you’re black or you’re brown, and you’re male… You’re a threat, you’re a menace, you’re a problem. What I’m so proud of is to see so many folks coming together around a new narrative. The new narrative is, you are loved, you are needed you are valued and you are cherished. We need you to move this nation forward. It’s that change in narrative that’s going to fix this. It’s not the $50 million.”
*”Christian’s” name has been changed.