LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- For Letitia Johnson-Davis, being an educator feels "ancestral."
"My great-grandmother was a teacher at a time where she wasn't even supposed to be teaching. She taught herself how to read and then was teaching others to do so at the beginning of the 1900s," recalled Davis, sitting at the cafeteria tables at Baldwin Hills Elementary where she, up until this school year, was principal.
Johnson-Davis, now the director of educational services for the Center for Powerful Public Schools, said she went into education to counter inequities she experienced as a student.
"I remember, vividly, going home and asking, like, 'Why do I never see anything that looks like me in texts?'" she said.
Johnson-Davis said she wondered why the only thing she ever learned about Black history over the course of a whole school year was Martin Luther King Jr. and "maybe something about enslavement."
As a Black woman, a Black educator and a Black mother of two Black sons, Johnson-Davis said she has become "very much aware of the pervasive, not only underachievement of Black students within our schools, as well as the hyper-criminalization of Black youth within schools."
A Vicious Cycle
For Tyrone Howard, a professor of education, the associate dean for equity and diversity at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Services and the director of the Black Male Institute, those same issues are top-of-mind.
"If you want to look at an area of school where we have, in my humble opinion, blatant racism, structural racism, ways in which we push students out, literally, of school, look at discipline data," Howard said.
In the Los Angeles metro area, Black students are four times more likely to miss school due to suspension than white students, according to data from the 2018 Civil Rights Data Collection from the U.S. Department of Education.
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Data from 2018 is the most recent CRDC data available. Normally, the DOE conducts the collection every other year, but skipped 2020 due to the pandemic.
Hispanic and Latino students are 1.2 times more likely to miss school due to a suspension than their white peers.
Similar numbers exist for the Oxnard metro area and the Riverside-San Bernardino metro area.
Eyewitness News analyzed data from the three largest districts in Southern California and found that in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Black students were nearly eight times as likely to miss school due to a suspension; in Long Beach Unified, it's nearly six times; and in San Bernardino City Unified it's nearly three times.
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"That's significant disproportionality. I just don't believe that Black youth are causing that much disruption and those kinds of problems that would explain that data," Howard said.
And experts, from school and district employees to advocates, agree: these racial disparities in discipline can snowball into more.
"When they're castigated, scolded, kicked out of the room, not only is there the discipline piece that's happening, they're also missing instruction," Johnson-Davis said.
And when students miss instruction, they fall behind. That can be a problem when data shows Black students tend to be behind their white peers already.
In Los Angeles County, about 34% of Black students "met or exceeded" the standard for English on the CAASPP tests during the 2018-19 school year. In math, it was just 21%.
Meanwhile, 69% of white students, "met or exceeded" the standard for English, and 59% did so for math.
"So, we take the students who are already behind. And because they have behavioral issues or concerns that we label as insubordinate, willfully defiant, we suspend them. They miss more instructional time, they come back to school, the gap is even wider. Those kids play so hard to catch up. And then, in many instances they never catch up. Those kids become more and more of a challenge. It just becomes a really vicious cycle that never is addressed. And so, we have to be better to recognize that suspending kids does not help them. If anything, the data shows it hurts them in the short run and in the long run," Howard said.
Innovate Public Schools, a nonprofit that works with students, families, educators and elected officials to ensure equitable public education for low-income students and students of color, published a data-driven list in 2020 of the top public schools in Los Angeles County.
The list focused on the top schools for Black and Latino students. In addition to looking at closing academic gaps, Innovate Public Schools also considered discipline when compiling the list.
"If there was an over-suspension of students of color specifically, then they were excluded from our list. So we took those things into account also when looking at our list of top schools," said Jennifer Perla, the associate director of research and policy at Innovate Public Schools.
The reason is simple, according to Jalisa Johnson, the director of Black student achievement in the Black Educator Advocates Network for Innovate Public Schools. If students aren't in school then they aren't learning.
"How does that contribute to the overall achievement gap? It's keeping kids of color out of the classroom," Johnson said.
According to Tyrone Howard at UCLA, it is time to have "hard conversations" about the racial discrimination, the lack of opportunity and the cultural ignorance that many Black students face.
"And that's the conversation that most schools don't want to have, because if we did, we would see that we oftentimes target Black students in ways we don't target any other group of students," Howard said.
"Let's roll our sleeves up, let's get ready, let's be honest. Because Black students experience something fundamentally different terms of how they are seen, surveilled, profiled, punished, pushed out by their teachers and principals compared to any other student at schools," Howard continued.
A sense of belonging
Part of the solution, according to Howard, is identifying teachers who may refer students more than others.
"Who are the teachers who are doing the referring and why is it that certain students have a hard time in certain teachers' classrooms? But they go down the hallway and teachers down the hallway never have those problems with those students. So, the question is not, 'what's wrong with the student,' because the student is able to engage and learn and some classes," Howard said.
But it's not just teachers that need to be held accountable.
"Teachers do the referring; principals do the suspending. So, we have to also talk to principals and help school leaders recognize that you know what, maybe you need to say, 'I'm not suspending the student today because of a dress code violation or because of willful defiance,'" Howard said.
Letitia Johnson-Davis is familiar with this approach. She said she's had conversations with families and students telling them, "Hey, I'm intentionally not logging this the way that I'm quote-unquote, 'supposed to,' because let's address this in a different way."
She also said she has worked with her staff through readings and research to come up with solutions for support and making sure all students feel "a sense of belonging."
"One of the things that is evident, even just walking the campus, our families are able to see reflections of selves, everywhere," Johnson-Davis said.
"And that's very much intentional, from the murals, to the text, to the art in the classrooms, to the teachers, the staff, the people we have in front of them. It's important that they have a sense of connectedness and that they have voice and choice and agency in who they are as learners, who they are as human beings," she continued.
In addition to teachers and principals, Howard said parent involvement is vital to closing the discipline gap. But many parents, especially parents of color, can't be as involved as they would like because they may work multiple jobs or may not have the most reliable transportation.
"Parents have a real vital role to play in this, but at the same time schools have got to think about better ways to meet parents where they are," Howard said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Howard said parents and schools learned how helpful remote meetings can be.
"That means a parent does not have to leave his or her or their household, it's as simple as clicking onto a Zoom link," he said.
Baldwin Hills was part of LAUSD's second cohort of Community Schools, which are schools that receive grant funding to create wraparound education services like socio-emotional and mental health support for students while also engaging families. The school also won the 2020 California Distinguished School Award for closing the achievement gap.
"The idea of really coordinating resources and connecting folks that are doing work of political advocacy, parent support, showing parents how to be even louder and more brash in speaking up for what they know their babies need, and making sure that there's a line of communication, and just ongoing advocacy and resources for the folks in the community. I think that's really, really important," Johnson-Davis said.
According to Howard, education and discipline codes need to be rewritten. And some Southern California school districts are starting to reimagine how school discipline works.
Los Angeles Unified School District officially started adopting restorative justice practices in 2013. Restorative justice emphasizes discussion and relationship building to minimize conflict, rather than traditional punishment like suspension. LAUSD also banned suspensions for "willful defiance" in 2013, a subjective suspension category that, at the time, accounted for half of all suspensions and disproportionately targeted Black students.
Suspension rates went down from 1.7% in the 2012-13 school year to just 0.7% in 2018-19. But, in the 2018-19 school year, the percentage of Black students who were suspended was still about three times higher than white students.
According to Tyrone Howard, there's still a long way to go.
LAUSD in February unveiled its Black Student Achievement Plan which diverts funding from school police to positions like restorative justice advisors and school climate coaches. The plan also includes funding for increased training, curriculum grants and more. Resources will go to all LAUSD schools, but some will receive more based on the number of Black students and the current level of performance, said officials.
According to Norma Spencer, the administrator for Black Student Achievement at LAUSD, the restorative justice pieces of the plan are "critical."
Spencer said it's about "bringing the students closer to the work. Really unpacking what the needs are and why is there a perception that they're acting out or why is there a perception that they're not engaged?"
Because sometimes, she said, it's all perception.
"I may be loud and boisterous but it doesn't mean I'm disruptive. I may be excited to be engaged and I'm hanging on to the edge of my seat, but I don't want you to think that I'm being a classroom distraction. So really having those conversations and really looking at restorative justice and social justice and making sure that we are all seeing excitement and engagement through the various lenses the same way," Spencer said.
Letitia Johnson-Davis, in her former role as principal at Baldwin Hills Elementary, was implementing restorative justice practices since she started at the school. She said she could count the number of times she has had to suspend anyone on one hand.
"Because the thing is never the thing, right? It's like, what's the root cause? What's the 'why?' What else is going on? How can we be of support? How can we engage the family? How can we work together in better partnership? Children need to be in class, right? Relationships between teachers, students, their peers, so integral for learning to happen," said Johnson-Davis.
Johnson-Davis said at Baldwin, they take time to tap into who their students are. Not only culturally and historically, but "what they have inside them to be able to make right decisions."
"There was a lot of work around principles and virtues and honoring that, honoring scholars for growth, not just with academics, but with behavioral shifts, opportunities for student leadership," Johnson-Davis said.
She said she would work with her staff to recommend students who may frequently get in trouble for leadership roles to give them an opportunity to grow.
The work that Johnson-Davis did as a principal at Baldwin is an example of how the Black Student Achievement Plan has always existed "informally" within LAUSD.
According to Jared DuPree, the senior director for the Office of the Superintendent at LAUSD, the formalization of the plan was a result of the national climate putting a spotlight on the true racism Black Americans face.
"And also, just an understanding that we need to come together in a coherent fashion to really centralize all of our resources in a formal manner, it was informal up to this point, to really address these long-standing disparities between Black students and their non-Black peers," DuPree said.
But it's not just LAUSD trying to formalize the attempt to close discipline gaps.
Compton Unified School District is also addressing the discipline gap through the new Office of Black Student Achievement.
"What we look to do in Compton, weekly, staff will be discussing ways to foster welcoming environments for students. Looking at ways of identifying trauma and responding with compassion," said Micah Ali, the president of Compton Unified School District and founder of the California Association of Black School Educators.
Ali said the district will focus on implicit bias training "like never before."
"We have to ensure that all students are welcomed and that we understand their struggles," Ali said.
The formalization of initiatives like these are vital, according to Jalisa Johnson from Innovate Public Schools.
Johnson was not only part of formulating the Black Student Achievement Plan at LAUSD's district level, but also helped formalize the "Validated" plan for LAUSD Local District South.
The plan, which is set to roll out officially in the coming weeks according to Local District South officials, addresses racial inequities among Black students in the LAUSD Local District with the second largest share of Black students behind Local District West, according to LAUSD data.
"It's a lot of intentionality and it's a lot of like, 'hey let's actually look at what our outcomes for Black students.' A lot of times where prior to this, they weren't tracking they weren't actually looking at the data for Black students," Johnson said.
The work continues
The work is just beginning for LAUSD, the Black Student Achievement Plan and others.
"We can talk about a plan until we're blue in the face, but we have to measure our success," said DuPree.
DuPree said there are 16 metrics falling into three categories that the district will measure throughout the year so they can make adjustments if needed.
"We have to have qualitative and quantitative data to measure our progress along the way, outside of the warm fuzzy feelings that we will have as a result of doing this hard work. We have to have some tangible concrete outcomes on the back end and also throughout," DuPree said.
Norma Spencer, also from LAUSD, said there are still some vacant positions they are trying to fill, but the district has covered a lot of ground, training staff as everyone starts the 2021-22 school year.
"Lots of training is already happening and lots of training will continue to happen because as we continue to work together, as Jared said, we're going to find new avenues for us to explore, ways in which we need to go back and refine," Spencer said.
For those who think restorative justice practices go too far in the other direction and don't hold students accountable, Johnson-Davis said she disagrees.
"On the contrary, I think it brings about accountability in a real-life way. There's restorative justice circles where we bring families together. And it's in a space where it's not talking about guilt, it's not talking about, 'here is the disciplinary measure that's going to come at the close of this circle,' it's around taking responsibility for what happened," she said.
In her new role as director of educational services for the Center for Powerful Public Schools, Johnson-Davis said she's excited to work with other Community Schools to give resources and voices to students, parents and educators who are trying to shift the climate.
It's too early to tell what impact all these new initiatives will have, but Johnson-Davis said, "I pray that there's shifts in practices that come from it. I think a big thing that has to happen is there just being some real candid conversations, and beyond the world of education, just as a nation around where we sit with race, and how we see people, there's a lot of historical injustices that have never really been addressed."
"The work continues, right?" she said.