LAUSD’s Apartheid Hall of Shame, Part 2: A View from the Classroom

by Sikivu Hutchinson

The Black student “push-out” phenomenon is directly related to Black mass incarceration. Studies show that “African Americans go to the dean’s office for less serious offenses than do Latinos and whites.” Disruptive behavior is in the subjective perception of the beholding teachers, some of whom “go off about ‘these black kids’ and what are you going to do with these black kids ‘cause I can’t teach in my classroom with these black kids going out of control.” Predominantly Black schools and faculty are often no better. “South L.A. schools with significant or majority black faculty and administrators are just as culpable.”

LAUSD’s Apartheid Hall of Shame, Part 2: A View from the Classroom

by Sikivu Hutchinson

If the community doesn’t demand it, the push-out regime will persist.”

As an assistant principal with 29 years of experience in South L.A. schools, John Alvarez* knows the drill. Amongst some teachers and administrators in the LAUSD there is a clear ethnic pecking order based on “good minority versus bad minority demonization.” He says, “In the world of schools Latinos are (regarded as) the quiet ones, they don’t speak the language so you can bamboozle them with worksheets. Black students demand more from their teachers. I’ve heard over and over again, ‘give me all Latino students’ from the weaker teachers. They seem to harbor that racist mentality.” The racist mentality that Alvarez refers to goes directly to the issue of racial disproportionality in suspensions. In a District which is facing one of its worst fiscal and moral crises in decades, suspension disproportionality underscores the relationship between school cultures that program black students to fail and the apartheid criminalization of black youth. Nonetheless, discussing the micro-politics of race in the classroom is a third rail taboo to school bureaucrats long accustomed to lumping black and brown students together in one dysfunctional pot. The neoliberal charter school juggernaut, the high stakes testing regime, declining black enrollment, bulging juvenile detention centers and a negligible black presence on the Los Angeles school board have essentially marginalized a black agenda in the LAUSD. This deficit is set against the backdrop of national data that is crystal clear: black kids spend more time in the dean’s office, more time being opportunity transferred to other campuses and more time in and out of juvenile detention facilities; regardless of whether they come from “Leave it to Beaver” homes, foster care or homeless shelters.

Reflecting on her experiences with the discipline divide, Linda Watts, a retired LAUSD administrator, remarked that black students during her tenure at South L.A. and South Bay schools were routinely sent to the office for “defiance.” On balance, “African Americans go to the dean’s office for less serious offenses than do Latinos and whites. Whites and Latinos will get counseled and sent back to the classroom. It seems to me that it’s a step to get them out of the classrooms.” With its polyglot racial makeup Fairfax High School has historically had a reputation as one of the more culturally eclectic “artsy” schools. Yet African Americans at Fairfax were suspended nearly 2 ½ times their number in the general school population. The school has a predominantly Latino population and a multiracial mix of black, white, and Asian Pacific Islander students. The push-out that Watts sees in the District at large is manifest at Fairfax in another way. According to one former Fairfax teacher, “If you were to happen onto the sporty side of campus during the after-lunch class periods, you would think Fairfax was a 95% African-American school given all the students ‘hanging out’ over there...not the athletes, as I assume that they were off exercising somewhere, but their ‘friends’ who just don’t go to 5th and/or 6th period classes... it was quite the shocking thing for me to observe...they are ‘hiding in plain sight.’”

Suspension disproportionality underscores the relationship between school cultures that program black students to fail and the apartheid criminalization of black youth.”

What is there about the culture of a school with an 18% African American population that makes it acceptable for black students to ‘hide in plain sight’? Drawing from her observations about other campuses, Watts emphasized the negative expectations that constantly shape perceptions of black students in the District. She notes, “I’ve had meetings with teachers in some of the most heinous circumstances and they would go off about ‘these black kids’ and what are you going to do with these black kids ‘cause I can’t teach in my classroom with these black kids going out of control. Kids would tell me that nothing was expected of them. They weren’t even expected to show up.” Low expectations for black students is a familiar theme. Esteemed progressive education activists and scholars like Lisa Delpit, Pedro Noguera and Gloria Ladson-Billings have written extensively about how the culture of low expectations ensnares black students. What is perhaps most egregious about LAUSD is how even high performing black students who consistently defy low expectations are treated. As an award-winning teacher and 43 year veteran of Markham Middle School and King-Drew Medical Magnet, my mother Yvonne Divans Hutchinson contends that “there is often a tendency to award higher grades in higher proportions to Latino students.” In one glaring instance, a black female student at Markham who should have been valedictorian was denied the award in favor of a Latina. The black student later went on to Harvard.

The District’s Response

Weighing in on the suspension crisis, LAUSD Senior Deputy Superintendent Michelle King spoke of a renewed urgency on the part of District head John Deasy to address the issue. The District’s School Wide Positive Behavior Support System (SWPBS) is the linchpin of this strategy. Central to SWPBS is a data tracking system for referrals which allegedly forces school administrators to be “accountable” for the kind of disparate treatment that fuels skyrocketing black suspensions. Instead of the traditional format of written referrals, teachers now submit referrals electronically, using drop-down menus to choose the “offense” of students they are sending out of the classroom. The referral is then sent to the dean’s office as an email. King says that this represents the District’s effort to “embed a culture of data analysis” into schools. However, collecting data is one thing; evaluating and developing culturally responsive strategies to redress the disparities presented in the data is another. According to Maisie Chin, executive director of CADRE, a community-based organization comprised of parents, students and legal advocates, “If everyone were to do SWPBS to the letter of LAUSD policy it would be undergirded by five best practices: Behavior intervention, parent engagement and database decision-making. Parent engagement would involve school-based teams with multiple stakeholders, data evaluation and campus support.” Spotty implementation and the belief of some faculty that data collection could lead to targeted intervention (and ultimately removal) have hindered the system’s roll-out. William Vanderberg, a history teacher at Foshay, and formerly of Crenshaw High School, noted that some teachers “feared that it would identify those that had classroom management problems and be used punitively.” He believes that the data tracking system merely exacerbates the fact that “teachers aren’t equipped to deal with discipline as professionals.”

In some quarters training that challenges faculty to delve into how systemic social injustice, cultural difference and racial perceptions inform the classroom is caricatured as the either too militant or ‘Kumbaya’ touchy feely.”

In theory, SWPBS provides counseling and intervention for teachers who generate a disproportionate number of suspensions. In reality, few of the veteran teachers and administrators I spoke to were aware of any of their colleagues receiving training or intervention. Alvarez noted that professional development training for “repeat offenders” was minimal. And it is not clear that there are any real consequences for principals that don’t meet SWPBS benchmarks. Chin stressed that the SWPBS template is “not culturally competent in and of itself.” As a teacher trainer I’ve experienced administrator and faculty resistance to culturally responsive professional development firsthand. In some quarters training that challenges faculty to delve into how systemic social injustice, cultural difference and racial perceptions inform the classroom is caricatured as the either too militant or “Kumbaya” touchy feely. School administrators may slot culturally responsive trainings for an obligatory two hours for the entire year then move on to more “pressing” district mandates. If there is no leadership around integrating cultural responsiveness into the school and classroom culture then teachers can easily blow off these sessions, using the time to catch up on grading papers, lesson plans or reading the newspaper. Many secondary school educators say that this kind of training has generally gone the way of the dodo bird. Lamenting the flavor of the month inconsistency of the District, Alvarez points out that, “there used to be a big cottage industry for culturally relevant instruction and now it’s been reduced to just a whisper.”

King acknowledges that there is greater emphasis on cultural responsiveness at the elementary school level and not middle and high school. But if teachers are fundamentally ignorant of African American cultural contexts then they will be more inclined to exhibit hostility toward black students who don’t sit in quiet regimented conformity in a traditional classroom where the teacher lectures to students, engages the “brightest” students in Q&A, gives an assignment and fields discipline problems. As King contends, “if you have a more verbal, expressive student and you’re not understanding the (cultural) difference in affect it will disadvantage the student. Defiance could mean anything.” Hutchinson concurs, stressing that “there is a tendency to visit the deficiencies of the adult onto the student. If the teacher expects students to learn…and communicates caring and passion for the whole process and involves the students in their learning interactively then that’s going to be a fairly orderly classroom. This kind of teacher has a sense of her students as a people—instead of harboring notions like ‘oh this disorderly black student’ needs to be taken out of the classroom.”

Internalized Racism and Black Faculty

Racial disproportionality in suspensions could be redressed with training on culturally competent classroom management. Yet there is no indication that the District has a serious commitment to it. And if the community doesn’t demand it, the push-out regime will persist. Throughout her career, Watts implemented a form of peer mediation called Counsel that develops classroom culture based on critical engagement with and respect for cultural differences. For Watts even “mentioning race in the LAUSD was encoded so as not to offend white teachers.” King Drew Medical Magnet coordinator Tabitha Thigpen argues that “when you ask people to unmask things like race it makes them uncomfortable because it’s looking at the politics of the District and what drives what we do.” But the prejudices of white and other non-black teachers are not the only factor driving disproportionate black suspensions. South L.A. schools with significant or majority black faculty and administrators are just as culpable. One black parent I spoke to at Westchester High believes that there is a deep class schism between black faculty and administrators and black students. This may lead them to crack the whip with “defiant” black youth. It’s a pattern that was of deep concern to former school board member and activist Genethia Hudley Hayes. In the early 2000s Hayes mobilized the South L.A. community around the African American Learners Initiative, a comprehensive policy to redress disparities in black students’ education through culturally responsive instruction, teacher training, curriculum development and parent engagement. Disproportionality at predominantly black schools like Audubon Middle School, Washington Prep, and, to a lesser extent, Crenshaw High, illustrates that white supremacy, to paraphrase bell hooks, doesn’t need white people to perpetuate and validate it. Chavonne Taylor, a former Washington Prep student, maintains that, “When you are black, people often assume you are angry and violent. I remember having to play down my anger a lot no matter how legitimate my feelings were because I knew that my being angry would get me in more trouble than the non-black kids. I've seen black students get harassed when they expressed outrage at the unfair treatment. The student was suspended for their reaction but there was no discussion of the unfair treatment. Black males got it the worst.” When it comes to discipline Watts believes that some black faculty and administrators have a bootstraps mentality informed by internalized racism. They may automatically “look at African American kids as doing all of the bad things…and they don’t want to be seen as giving these kids special treatment.”

When you are black, people often assume you are angry and violent.”

During the 2009-2010 school year, Foshay, Drew and Gompers had the greatest number of disproportionate black suspensions amongst all middle schools in the District. Foshay’s Vanderberg pointed out that the school has weathered a turbulent two years. He attributes disproportionality to the myriad challenges the school has faced vis-à-vis a local charter’s siphoning of high performing students, the increasing demands of special needs and special education students, exploding class sizes and a glut of must-place teachers who bounce from campus to campus. Foshay is certainly not unique in this regard. Nonetheless, the data suggests that even when controlling for socioeconomic differences disproportionality still persists.

With black unemployment skyrocketing to record levels, South L.A. is reeling from the economic devastation of foreclosure, draconian cuts in K-12 and higher education and gutted social welfare services. Thus King-Drew’s Thigpen sees a broader context to the District’s criminalization of black students. Along with Westchester, Washington Prep, Crenshaw and Dorsey High Schools, King-Drew is one of the few remaining majority black high schools. Thigpen draws parallels between the civil unrest in Britain and the economic blight in communities of color. “We need to talk about slavery, we need to talk about race…you look at what’s going on in the country and there are sparks of unrest. When I drive around the community I see packs of boys roaming around doing nothing. There is no structure and no opportunity for them. We cannot sit in our ivory towers and think that it’s not going to impact us.”

Sikivu Hutchinson, Ph.D. is a senior specialist with the L.A. County Human Relations Commission and the author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and the Values Wars.

*Name Changed

1 Comment

Winners and Losers

Thanks Ms Hutchinson for a nice article.  I taught in LAUSD for 10 years (the entire decade of the eighties at West Athens Castle Heights and 42nd St.) so I am speaking from personal experience.  Your story about the push-out of Black students at the Jr. High and High school level is no doubt a reality.  I had many friends who taught Jr. High and High school and continuation in LA and they told me all the time about the discipline problems that they had.  Education is where children are Identified Categorized and Labeled.  Some are labeled winners and some are labeled losers.  The Push Out, Drop Out, get Kicked Out phenomenon that you speak of starts on the first day they enter school.

As someone who taught those early grade levels I know that education in a nutshell is that you learn the basic fundamental decoding reading skills from pre K thru the third grade.  From the fourth grade forward you READ TO LEARN.  If you do not learn those basic and fundamental decoding reading skills by the fourth grade you will be falling further and further behind.  This is an open secret for most elementary teachers.  When that happens students get Identified Categorized and Labeled as EH (educationally handicapped) or academically challenged.

When I taught fifth and sixth grades I found that most of the children had gaps in their basic skill sets.  So I spent a lot of time re-teaching skills that they should have known.  There are some things that are I think are important when teaching, one is the sequence in which skills are taught then the level of instruction and pace of instruction and remediation.  We are always being pushed to teach skills out of sequence.  For example you can’t learn how to add until you learn how to count, you can’t learn how to subtract until you learn how to add and count etc.  Skills should be taught in their proper sequence so that the learner can get a sense of continuity and a chance to understand the concept the process and the application that is involved.  Using the scrambled egg approach only makes the process more difficult (could it be that is what they wanted in the first place)???  The other things you also have to look at are the level and pace of instruction, if the level of instruction is over the students heads and the pace of instruction is supersonic then you create a shark tank type of learning environment that makes it difficult for anyone to learn in.

The reason that students are being taught like this is because of standardized testing.  We have become slaves to the standardized testing juggernaut.  When students are being taught skills out of sequence and cannot keep up with the elevated levels of instruction and the frantic pace of instruction driven by trying to prepare for the standardized testing gauntlet they must go through.  Those who do not make it through the furnace of standardized testing they are Identified Categorized and Labeled.  Those that can’t make the grade are shoved into the Special Ed classes; those on the margins are left hanging with finger and toes dangling in the wind.  They are given labels that identify them as on track to be the losers.  By the time a lot of children get to the fourth grade they are already Identified Categorized and Labeled as losers and are treated as such.  All this is happening at the K through third grade levels. 

There are many other causes for discipline/socialization problems that student have (dysfunctional/abusive family settings, absent parents father and mother, homelessness, hunger just to name a few) that facilitate the Push Out, Drop Out, get Kicked Out phenomenon you describe in this article.  You also have to look at the people who are teaching the K through the third grade.  Some of them are the same kind of people with the same kind of attitude that is describe that some teachers have at the Jr. High/High school level.  If the teacher does not view the students that he/she is teaching as capable of learning then they are not going to be motivated to teach.  Students are really quick to pick up on a teacher who is not fully prepared to teach or fully motivated to teach them.  When that happens classroom management IE discipline goes over the cliff.  So when students start behaving in ways that are not acceptable because a teacher is not doing a good job of teaching and or can’t manage the classroom effectively the misbehaving children get labeled as a behavior problem.  If you think I’m lying check out this link about a teacher teaching First Graders and referring to them as future criminals (Yes She said that)!!!

These are some of many underlying problem that starts the Push Out, Drop Out, get Kicked Out phenomenon at the pre K elementary level.  Children don’t learn those basic and fundamental decoding/reading skills and they are taught skills out of sequence and are sitting in class rooms that are a hyper shark tank environment in the early grades.  By the time they get to Jr. High/High school they are frustrated discouraged and have long since been identified Categorized and Labeled.  They are looked upon as social/behavior problems among other things and become academic outcast.  These labels follow you your entire academic life (Just read the Cumulative record IE Cum Folder that follows every student).  When you have already been Identified Categorized and Labeled like that; some teachers are not committed to seriously teaching you and the site much less the regional or district administration really doesn’t want to address your needs.  So they get Pushed Out, or Drop Out, or get Kicked Out and most everyone (students parents, and school district) feel that that is all that was supposed to happen.  The psyops starts early and reaches full maturity by the time they get to Jr. High/High School and everyone parents, teachers administrators etc are caught up in that academic BLACK HOLE!!!

Back in the late sixties and early seventies there was a big focus on reading readiness and there were many reading programs created to address this issue.  LAUSD created its own reading program called DPR (Developmental Reading Program).  This reading program broke reading down into its basic component parts (vowels consonants diphthongs diagraphs consonant clusters etc).  I used it when I was teaching in the eighties (had to almost fight my principal to do it) it was a great tool that helped me get many students to test out of the EH (educationally handicapped) program.  But OMG all those reading readiness programs got scrapped in the eighties (I wonder why, could it be that they were actually WORKING????) I’m just saying.

Is this is why California uses third grade reading scores to determine how much prison space they will need in the future???  The logic is that if they are not reading well by the third grade they will more than likely become a social problem (got to have a continuous supply of DOG FOOD for the prison industrial complex DOG POUND).  So instead of spending money to make sure that children are being taught reading and everything else well, the state wants to spend money on building prisons and use third grade reading scores to determine who the future inmates will be.  You can tell how much they care by where and what they spend level OUR money on.  Lord Oh Lord Please Help Us All!!!


S Mruph