Gerald Cantu

Dr. Gerald Cantu is Civic Engagement Director at the Dolores Huerta Foundation and Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at Cal State University, Bakersfield.

Gerald Cantu

The Dolores Huerta Foundation and Dignity in Schools Campaign California  joined forces this past week to call on schools across the nation to end the pushout of students of color. This year’s theme was “Education is a human right! We will not give up the fight!”

The week of action was timely. Very recently, the DHF, Faith in Kern, National Brotherhood Association and Kern High School District parents and students achieved a historic civil rights victory on behalf of students of color through the settlement of Sanders et al. v. KHSD (filed in 2014). Sanders charged KHSD with suspending and expelling Black and Latino students at higher rates than their peers.

The suit’s baseline discipline data was school year 2009-2010, when Kern County schools, astonishingly, expelled 2,588 students (more than all of L.A.U.S.D., a district seven times larger). Only 10 percent of these expulsions were for serious offenses requiring mandatory expulsion. The remaining 90 percent were for non-serious discretionary offenses. Students of color were disproportionately expelled. In effect, Kern schools were pushing the equivalent of a whole cohort of high school youth out of schools and into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Although suspensions and expulsions have gradually gone down for all groups since 2009-10, there is more work to do. Racial inequities persist. At KHSD in 2016-17, the suspension rate among African-Americans was 22.4 percent as compared with 8.5 percent for whites. African-American youth represented 23 percent of all expulsions even though they only made up 5.9 percent of enrollment.

This data was presented by KHSD on Oct. 19 at its first-ever community forum on school climate, which represents an important fact for two reasons: First, it is unprecedented to have discipline data so quickly after the school year. Community stakeholders usually have to wait one to two years to receive data from the California Department of Education.

Second, this meeting was held because the terms of Sanders’ settlement requires KHSD to produce this data at semi-annual community forums. These forums also allow the public to provide KHSD with input on the data and other discipline-related issues. (There are other settlement terms which provide powerful tools by which the community and advocates can ensure that KHSD will abide by their agreements. A copy of the settlement agreement can be downloaded at kernstudents.com.)

As mentioned, progress has been made on reducing overall suspensions and expulsions at KHSD. This was the result of years of grassroots organizing and pressure on KHSD from the community and advocates. After the baseline data of 2009-10 was reported by the U.S. Department Office of Civil Rights, the DHF began working with KHSD parents and students to change the punitive discipline policies and culture that were responsible for the school pushout, and neither the DHF nor the community has let up since.

There is work yet to be done. The next step is to address the racial inequities that persist despite a decrease of discipline overall. With Sanders behind us and the implementation of the settlement before us, we are in position to create a school climate that prepares all youth for college, careers and meaningful lives of opportunity.

KHSD is in the midst of systemic change. The cumulative effect of years of external community pressure, collaboration between stakeholders, and implementation of comprehensive solutions has led to substantial changes at multiple levels within the institution of KHSD. Changes in culture, training, policy, law, hiring and governing practices, etc., are what it takes to bring about systemic change. The implementation of the settlement has the potential to effect even more change.

However, this goal will not be realized unless the community remains engaged. Here are some of the following ways you can get involved to make a difference:

Attend KHSD’s semi-annual community forums on school climate as required by the settlement, and provide your feedback during the input session.

Attend your school district’s LCAP public hearings, and let officials know you want to see state funds earmarked for low-income students used to close the achievement gap.

Attend monthly district board meetings, and during public comment demand that your trustee, who represents you as an elected official, dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

Vote every two years to hold your district trustee accountable for their actions.

Completing the work at KSHD and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline once and for all requires your civic participation at all of these levels. So get involved and stand with the DHF and DCS-CA as we proclaimed: “Education is a human right! We will not give up the fight!”

Gerald Cantu, Ph.D., is education policy director at the Dolores Huerta Foundation.