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One of America’s ‘best’ school districts is actually kind of racist, report says

via Sarah Omojola, Public Counsel

A big sign that reads “America’s best urban schools” hangs in the window of the building where Long Beach Unified School District board meetings are held, says Sarah Omojola, one of the co-authors of a damning report released Tuesday that admonishes the California district for mistreating its students of color.

It’s ironic considering “Untold Stories Behind One of America’s Best Urban School Districts” describes how such students are disproportionately punished, suspended, and policed. The report was compiled by the Children’s Defense Fund-California, a nonprofit child advocacy organization, and Public Counsel, a nonprofit law firm that provides services to low-income Americans.

Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD), which serves 78,000 students and is California’s third-largest school district, describes itself as having “earned a reputation as one of America’s finest school systems.” In 2003, education nonprofit Broad Foundation awarded LBUSD a $1 million prize for urban education. And in 2012, Batelle for Kids, another nonprofit, listed it as one of the world’s five highest-performing school systems. LBUSD has also been the subject of many flattering profiles about its successes.

But Tuesday’s report casts doubt on the district’s shining reputation.

“They’ve symbolically signed onto restorative justice, but it hasn’t reached the students.”

- Sarah Omojola, Public Counsel

The result of a public records request by Public Counsel, “Untold Stories” reviews and analyzes previously unreleased data collected on LBUSD’s disciplinary practices over the past decade. Black students, according to the report, are nearly 14 times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts. Meanwhile, Latinx and Pacific Islanders are four times more likely to be suspended.

One curious statistic revealed that suspensions went down by 53% in LBUSD between 2011 and 2015, a positive trend that mirrored the rest of California. But the 2012-13 school year saw 11,752 suspensions—the highest number of suspensions recorded in the district’s recent history. Although black and white students in LBUSD each made up 15% of enrolled students that year, black students comprised 38% of suspensions, while white students accounted for 7%.

And it isn’t just suspensions that are damaging the district’s image. Over the past four years, LBUSD has spent 200 times more of its budget on law enforcement—a change that has disproportionately impacted students of color—according to the report. Over two school years, 2011-12 and 2014-15, the district spent more than $35 million on policing students. Black and Latinx students bore the brunt of this increased police presence since they made up 86% of those who come into contact with police, despite only representing 69% of students in LBUSD, the report says.

LBUSD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Untold Stories” offers the district a comprehensive list of solutions, including a code of conduct that provides every school in LBUSD with the same guidelines and practices, implicit bias training, restorative justice training, and a transparent method to creating a “holistic” approach to school safety.

“Other school districts recognize the responsibility they have, but also the social, emotional wellness of students,” Angelica Salazar, co-author of the report, told me. “In Long Beach [the district], they’ve symbolically signed onto restorative justice, but it hasn’t reached the students.”

Other cities have adopted policies to reduce the disproportionate punishment of black and Latinx students. Chicago and New York City both saw declines in suspensions, but black students are still suspended at a much higher rate than their white counterparts in both cities.