December 13, 2002

Students Fight for Their Rights

by Raymond R. Beltran

“They’re supposed to make us feel safe, but instead they’re harassing us. They’re always there,” says Denisse Montano about the presence of police officers on her school’s campus. “Basically, they discipline students of color. Instead of making us feel like we’re attending school, it’s like we’re in prison. They’re always around when people get out of school, just looking for trouble makers, and waiting for us to make some kind of mistake.”

Denisse Montaño at a press conference at Gov. Gray Davis' district office in San Diego. File Photo.

Montano is a junior at Will C. Crawford High School in East San Diego, and an active member in the student civil rights organization, Californians for Justice (CFJ). The presence of police officers on campus is only one of the grievances that she shares with members of CFJ and her fellow student body.

“I got involved with Californians for Justice a year and a half ago with my sister,” says Montano. “There was a lot of stuff I didn’t know about, like the disciplinary process, and I wanted to know what it was.”

CFJ is an organization determined to provide knowledge to urban community members in order to change the injustices occurring within the realm of the school. Currently, it is recommending alternatives for the present disciplinary process and the tendency teachers have to expel and suspend students from the classroom, as well as police officers patrolling the school grounds constantly.

“Overcrowded classrooms without trained teachers and no information about culture leads to irrational behavior, and the students miss school,” says CFJ lead organizer Emmanuelle Regis. “When they’re suspended, they’re not given any homework, and they comeback to class more behind with less drive. It makes a difference when they’re behind, because a student that had a B in the class, now has a D. Then they’re pushed into a behavior pattern and told they’re not worth it. They don’t like that.”

According to CFJ, two factors fall into play when it comes to the discipline problem: lack of diversity training for teachers and lack of student’s rights information being dispersed throughout the campus and to parents at home, mainly African-American and Mexican-American. They want students to be aware of their ability to appeal suspensions and expulsions, and following the accusations, are able to present adequate evidence in their defense in a mandatory meeting with the principal. But, they say that this kind of information is not being administered.

In a letter dated in January 2002 addressed to CFJ supporters from Joanne Wall, director of counseling and guidance in San Diego City Schools, Wall wrote, “A review of our records indicate we have heard 355 suspension appeals in the last two years.” It was also noted that in addition to the suspension letters were sent to parents, there is also an attachment on the tenth page of the packet containing information about student’s right to appeal by contacting the Deputy Executive Administrator.

However, Montano says, “Yes, there are letters, but they’re in English. How would others [non-English speaking parents] read it.”

SDCS Community Relations Director Peri Turnbull attended a meeting Monday evening between CFJ members and Superintendent Alan Bersin, where she indicated that disciplinary letters with adequate information are sent to parents in a variety of languages. Although, Regis and CFJ members noted that the terminology of the letters do not appeal to parents in the urban communities. The organization constructed a reader-friendly model flier with the same information in laymen terms to Bersin, but discussions have only begun between the two parties.

According to the San Diego City Schools Achievement Progress Report, “the ‘achievement gap’ is closing,” between Caucasian students and students of ethnic backgrounds. It states that in 2002, the failure rates for Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition (SAT-9) have dropped from 46% to 33% for African-American students, 56% to 42% for Latinos, and 44% to 24% for Indochinese students.

Even though the San Diego Unified School District received a passing grade in CFJ’s Racial Justice Report Card in the booklet Still Separate, Still Unequal for the graduation rate, SDUSD received an F in sections concerning the learning environment, language, college entrants, and staff training sections.

In another booklet Profiled and Punished, their statistics show that Latino and African-American students made up 53% of the total student population in San Diego in 2000-2001 academic year, but made up 72% of students suspended and 76% of students expelled.

“Teenagers especially can be difficult to handle as they try to establish relationships with authority figures, including parents, that recognize their need for more autonomy,” says Regis in Profiled and Punished. “So, the question is not ‘Are students disruptive or defiant?’ so much as it is ‘What can schools do to keep students with behavior problems in the classroom?’ If that was the goal, we’d see suspension as the last resort, not the first.”

Because CFJ’s statistics show that both ‘minority’ students and Caucasian school staff are the same 73% of their total population, they are asking that teachers take a course in diversity training. The statistics show that with as many white teachers there are, there are ethnic students. Hence, students are barely learning from teachers that understand their language, their culture, their background, and aren’t communicating the curriculum as well as with the Caucasian students. This may lead to frustration in the teacher and disinterest in the student in which the student ultimately pays the price through punishment.

“I know a teacher that doesn’t like to pay attention to us,” says Montano speaking about her classroom environment as a Chicana student. “Now, we’ve decided to sit in the back of the class, but that doesn’t give her the right to ignore us.”

According to a San Diego City Schools report dated June 15, 2002, “The Board of Education assigned responsibility to the Equity Committee to oversee the implementation of the recommendation from the 1993 The Equity Committee Report on Student Suspensions.” This report says that “counselors have attended Counselor Leadership Academy training, Don’t Laugh at Me (anti-bullying curriculum) training, and Results Based Counseling training” for the 314 counselors in the district.

On the other hand, the diversity training Californians for Justice is seeking suggests teachers, specifically, have mandatory training on topics such as multi-cultural (non-European) history, struggles of low income and poverty stricken families, alternative discipline practices in the classrooms, and classes pertaining to people’s immigration from foreign countries into the U.S.’s urban areas.

“Teachers need training sessions on what are key [conditions] in non-white ethnic communities,” says Regis. “Why immigration? Cultural information, historical information. What do parents deal with on welfare, having three jobs living in poverty and low income communities? Train police and to have alternatives to bullets on campus. They don’t need to be there, not unless they’re called. They don’t need to be driving around.”

CFJ also recommends that school police be trained to handle situations with young adults on campus in an appropriate manner. The use of rubber bullets will “more than adequately serve as ammunition.” They should also not be allowed on campus unless approved by school officials. As stated in their short term recommendations outline, “Students have the right to feel comfortable, safe, and trusted at school. They should NOT be made to feel like criminals.”

During the Monday night meeting with Bersin, Californians for Justice members from Hoover and Crawford High School proposed some of their recommendations and student testimonies of their experiences at school to the superintendent, and members of the Equity Committee and the Counseling and Guidance Department. After presenting Bersin with a commitment checklist, the only commitment the superintendent made was that there would be further scheduled discussions between the district and Californians for Justice about the discipline problem and means of information distribution.

“He sat there and listened, but didn’t actually commit to anything,” says a disappointed Montano.

Even so, Superintendent Bersin absolved his refusal to commit to any of the student’s recommendations saying,”We need to talk with the staff and dialogue. I don’t make decisions myself. This is a dialogue we have to have. We should work to see exactly how we could provide and develop information, how we could provide a different point of view. Diversity training has to be discussed at great lengths with professionals doing that training. It’s not to sit and listen, but engage with the need to start creating conditions for a multi-cultural society. It’s a working process.”

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