Alvarez noted that professional development training for “repeat offenders” was minimal. And it is not clear that there are any real consequences for principals who 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 first-hand administrator and faculty resistance to culturally responsive professional development. 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 as opposed to the middle and high school levels. But if teachers are fundamentally ignorant of African American cultural contexts 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 me being angry would get me in more trouble than the non black kids. I’ve seen black students get harassed then when they expressed outrage at the unfair treatment, the student was suspended for their reaction but no discussion of the unfair treatment. Black males got it the worst.”
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.
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