With each suspension given, the number of days away from school grows for 8-year-old Maceo Williams. He’s one of the many African American students in special education at San Diego Unified that are disciplined at higher rates, sometimes leading to many absences, according to the California Department of Education.

For Vanessa Bell-Pinckney, Maceo’s mother, the state’s findings aren’t shocking. But as one of many of the district’s African American parents, she’s concerned her child’s behavior is looked at differently than his classmates, leading to discipline more often than for other students. 

“I kind of see that trend going on with my son,” she said.

Earlier this year, the state education agency flagged discipline inequities among special education students in the district, which now must work in partnership with the community to develop an improvement plan and provide the state with progress reports. Last week, district officials, parents and advocates for African American students with disabilities gathered in a Zoom meeting to discuss the findings and come to an agreement on how to narrow the gaps.

Maceo fixes his hair before heading to school in San Diego on Dec. 15, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Every year, the CDE is federally mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to audit school districts in the state and unveil any “significant disproportionality” in how special education students are treated. 

The audit must look at how likely groups of various races and ethnicities will experience unfavorable outcomes compared to their peers. Those comparisons are called “risk ratios.” School districts must calculate the likelihood those students are identified as having a disability, and the likelihood those children with disabilities will face disciplinary actions or be placed in an education setting other than a typical classroom.  

When evaluating risk ratios for student discipline, the district compares outcomes for each identity group to all other special education students.

The California Department of Education considers a district’s treatment of students to have a “significant disproportionality” when risk ratios are 3:1, meaning students are at least three times more likely than their peers to experience negative outcomes. The state flags districts for interventions once those significant inequities persist for more than three years in a row and the district fails to make any “reasonable progress” toward addressing the problem. 

San Diego Unified is California’s second largest school district with a total enrollment of nearly 114,500 students. Of the more than 17,000 students enrolled in special education through the district, roughly 1,700 – or 10% – were African American during the 2020-21 school year, the most recent year for which discipline and demographic data is publicly available. 

The CDE analyzed district data for the 2017-18 through 2019-20 school years and found African American students in special education were at least three times more likely than their peers to face out-of-school suspension for more than 10 days. 

In 2019-20 alone, those students were more than five times more likely than their peers to face the same level of discipline. The state notified San Diego Unified of its findings in late March. Of the more than 1,000 school districts in California, a total of 114 were recently designated by the Department of Education as significantly disproportionate mostly for reasons other than discipline. 

San Diego Unified is one of just 17 California school districts the state flagged for inequitable discipline issues, according to the CDE. Fourteen of the 17, including San Diego Unified, were flagged for African American special education students being at much higher risk for discipline than their peers. One district had similar disparities among white students.

In the 2021-22 school year, African American students accounted for more than 18% of the 3,669 total suspensions in San Diego Unified while making up less than 8% of the student population. 

The San Diego and Hoover high school clusters, south of Interstate 8, had the highest suspension rates in the district, respectively. 

A few parents spoke during Wednesday’s Zoom meeting calling for more diversity on school campuses. One speaker who identified as a longtime San Diego Unified parent said that the state’s findings were “sad” and “egregious” and noted that had the state not flagged the district, the trends would likely have gone unnoticed and unaddressed. 

According to an inewsource analysis, San Diego Unified’s African African students in special education at traditional schools have had the highest suspension rate among any racial or ethnic group since 2015, the oldest year suspension data for special education students is available online.

District officials acknowledged during the meeting that there is a problem that must be addressed.

They shared interviews the district conducted with several San Diego Unified educators, who expressed concern over a lack of trauma-informed training among staff, and some said teachers don’t believe it’s their job to form relationships with these students.

“Staff are not equipped to handle behaviors. Is someone checking in with the teachers?” one interviewee asked.

Special education officials also said that root causes contributing to disproportionate suspension include systemic racial bias, a focus on African American student behavior and discipline, a lack of uniform implementation of restorative interventions that are culturally responsive and an absence of authentic engagement with African American families. 

As a result, these students receive different treatment and access to education, district officials found. A breakdown in communication has also led to distrust among African American families and relationships with these families are lacking, district officials said.

Participants were asked whether they agreed with the district’s findings through a vote, as a first step in the process. Votes were not publicly shared, and some participants requested additional time to submit their vote.

“The entire district staff is committed to examining biases, interrupting inequitable practices, and creating inclusive multicultural school environments for all students and staff,” said Maureen Magee, communications director at San Diego Unified.

Vanessa Bell-Pinckney wipes the face of her son Maceo Williams before driving him to school in San Diego on Dec. 15, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)
Maceo Williams gives his mother Vanessa Bell Pinckney a hug before going to school in San Diego on Dec. 15, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

On the call, Bell-Pinckney said teachers who aren’t Black sometimes can’t relate to African American students and that lack of connection can lead to seeing a child as a bad student. She said that’s been the case for her son Maceo, who attends Encanto Elementary School and is the only African American in his class. She added that Maceo did not have the same experience when he attended a preschool where the teachers looked like him. 

“It would be great if we had more familiar faces, or people who look like us on the campus,” she said.

A district official told the group on the call that Bell-Pinckney’s perspective was not unique, but one that several people had expressed.  

inewsource reached out to Encanto Elementary’s principal to verify teacher demographics, but was unable to confirm current numbers. However, African Americans made up about 4.3% of teachers in San Diego Unified in the 2018-19 school year, according to the most recent data available online. 

Bell-Pinckney later told inewsource that Maceo’s dyslexia and ADHD make missing school a big deal for her son, whose academics suffer even more when he’s suspended.

Maceo Williams walks towards the entrance of his school in San Diego on Dec. 15, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“It takes away from the learning because he’s outside (of school),” said Bell-Pinckney.

The district now must draft a plan with community input to address the discipline problem – a requirement of federal law. The district reached out to its educators and community partners, including parents of African American students who have been suspended in the last three years, Magee said. 

School districts identified by the state for disproportionality among its special education students must also reserve 15% of its IDEA grant funds to provide intervention services particularly, but not exclusively, to students who were overidentified and need additional academic and behavioral support. 

The district will present a plan for addressing the equity issues to the San Diego Unified Board of Education early next year, which will then go to the CDE. The plan should be implemented between March 23 and Sept. 24; however, the district is required to report progress on its plan in January.

The district said this effort shows its dedication to improving the school environment. 

“This work underscores the broader commitment of the district to create equitable and inclusive learning environments that allow every student to belong and thrive,” Magee said.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa BriseñoEducation reporter

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...