Report states black students suspended from Berkeley schools at disproportionate rate

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A disproportionate number of black students have been suspended from Berkeley Unified School District schools over the past few years compared with students of other races, according to a report by the school district.

From 2010 to 2013, about 60 percent of suspensions at the district’s schools each year were of black students, according to the district’s report, which was presented during a board meeting Oct. 9. Black students make up about 20 percent of all students in the district. The number of African Americans enrolled in schools decreased during this period, the report shows.

Zeus Leonardo, an associate professor in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, said factors contributing to the suspension rate of black students include what he terms the “racial positioning” of black students, as well as the cultural mismatch between white teachers and students of color.

“Among black communities, there is more direct talk about race,” Leonardo said. “There is a cultural misunderstanding going on between white teachers who hold authority over black kids — they interpret the meaning behind black boys’ behavior as defiant.”

The reason black students are more frequently suspended than students of other races also has to do with how they are positioned in society’s racial hierarchy, Leonardo said.

“There are certain norms and perceptions that regulate our understanding of black students,” he said. “There’s a kind of criminalization of black youth — that’s a different racial positioning for them than Asian American students.”

One way to combat this issue is to recruit more teachers of color, Leonardo posited.

Sixty-seven percent of teachers in Berkeley Unified School District are white, 8 percent are Hispanic, 8 percent are Asian and 7 percent are black, the report states.

Over the past three years, the percentage of white teachers has increased by four percentage points, and the percentage of Hispanic teachers increased by one percentage point — but the proportion of black and Asian teachers has remained the same, according to the report.

Despite the high proportion of suspensions of black students compared with the district’s total student body, the data show the rate of suspensions for black students independent of other racial groups has declined slightly since 2010.

To close racial achievement gaps, Berkeley Alliance — a collaboration including the school district, UC Berkeley and the city that seeks to improve opportunities for the city’s youth —is conducting six three-day “cultural competency academies” to help teachers learn how to successfully navigate cultural diversity in the classroom, a separate district report on black acceleration strategies states.

Berkeley Alliance also aims to decrease suspension rates by expanding the number of alternatives to suspension, according to its website.

Contact Jessie Lau at [email protected].