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California State Capitol

Photo by Andreas Pagel | flickr creative commons

On Wednesday, June 12th, the California State Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color brought together policymakers, grassroots advocates, youth, educators, and concerned parents to offer their perspectives on school safety and education needs for youth of color. Assemblymember Steven Bradford, who chairs the select committee, opened the conversation by noting that legislation in post-Sandy Hook America emphasizes a zero-tolerance approach to school discipline and more police officers on campuses. Unfortunately, these policies, he stated, have negative and disproportionate effects on students of color, and may have the unintended consequence of making our schools less safe.

Chief Ronald Davis, of East Palo Alto, discussed the challenges for law enforcement who work in neighborhoods of color. Chief Davis noted that communities must trust police for police to properly serve the best interests of the community. The same is true for school safety, he said, where campus officers need to develop working partnerships students and teachers.

Brian Lee, of Fight Crime Invest in Kids, highlighted extensive research on the best way to keep youth off the streets — keeping them in school. He noted a 2011 Texas study by the Council of State Governments (CSG), which found that African American students were disproportionately subject to disciplinary removal from classrooms, leading to increased contact with the juvenile justice system. Lee articulated policy opportunities in California, specifically Assembly Bill 420 (Dickinson), which would limit the use of suspensions for willful defiance; thereby limiting subjective reasoning in suspending youth.

Dr. Ramona Bishop offered her unique experiences as Superintendent of the Vallejo City Unified School District. Prior to her appointment, Vallejo was reported as one of the top 10 school districts in California for suspensions, which disproportionately punished boys of color. In response, Dr. Bishop’s school district adopted positive behavior intervention training. Suspensions have been cut by one-third over the past two years. Moreover, Vallejo has partnered with the Sierra Health Foundation’s Positive Youth Justice Initiative (PYJI) to develop tools for helping crossover youth — youth formerly involved in the child welfare system who have now entered the juvenile justice system.

Tyrone Sinclair, a high school student at FREE L.A. High School, explained his personal story of success over challenges at his original school which he never saw as a place for learning. Instead, he explained, students learn in best in a environment that listens to their voice, while utilizing systematic tools and mentors for conflict resolution.

Barbara Raymond, of the California Endowment, explained that California is currently at a policy crossroads. After the school shooting at Columbine, policymakers and educators focused exclusively on punishing youth through school discipline policies, rather than focus on their unique needs. California is at a similar crossroads and now has the opportunity to develop policies that incorporate trauma-informed care, expansive mental health therapy, and alternatives to school punishment. She emphasized, this choice strengthens our education system and invests in all of our youth.

Lasting and sensible education reform must incorporate the voices of all stakeholders — teachers, students, administrators, and parents. The Assembly hearing on Wednesday elevated perspectives, which need to be raised more often in Sacramento and across the state. CJCJ’s policy analysis work will continue to listen to these voices and support policies that benefit all Californians.