Event Highlights Challenges, Opportunities for Boys and Men of Color in Kern

October 3, 2016 /

South Kern Sol, News Report, Jesus Meraz

The impact of school discipline policies on young men of color was the focus of a recent event hosted by CSU Bakersfield’s Center for Social Justice and Building Healthy Communities South Kern.

“Expulsion rates affect students of color disproportionately,” said Camila Chavez, executive director for the Dolores Huerta Foundation.

Indeed, African American students make up just 6 percent of all students enrolled in the state but accounted for 16 percent of suspensions last year, according to the California Department of Education. Latinos, who make up 53 percent of total enrollment, accounted for 54 percent of suspensions. In comparison, whites are 24 percent of enrolled students and made up 20 percent of suspensions.  

More than 70 percent of California youth under the age of 25 identify as people of color.

The organizations, hosted the Assembly Select Committee on the Status of Boys and Men of Color chaired by state assembly members Rob Bonta and Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer Sr. The committee is focused on creating policies that improve conditions for young people of color in California.

Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer from south Los Angeles takes this issue very personal as he has had to push back to ensure that the system didn’t stigmatize his son.  

“Our boys and men of color are not a problem, we should honor the same behavior that they exhibit at schools, if their white counterparts did the same they would be considered leaders in their community,” said Assemblymember Jones-Sawyer. “We need to really address the health consequence that are going on in the community.”

They were joined by Bakersfield native and state Assemblyman Rudy Salas, who helped organize a panel of speakers from the community.

One of the speakers was Joey Williams, executive director of Faith-in-Action of Kern County. Williams spoke about his experience in the foster care system and with the Kern High school District, which he said continues to target young men of color.

The suspension rate in the district is three times higher than the state average,” he said, noting such policies contribute to the criminalization of young people of color and fuel the “school to prison pipeline.”

Williams added that district staff does not reflect the diversity of the community. “Even though the student population is predominantly Latino, there is a misrepresentation of staff and administration, which happen to be predominantly white,” said Williams.

In Kern High School District about 73 percent of the staff is white, while students of color make up about 70 percent of the student population.

Chavez of the Dolores Huerta Foundation commented on the disparity when it came to the choice of advanced placement classes on the east and south side schools in comparison to the west side schools, noting that schools like Golden Valley and East have fewer than 10 such classes, while Stockdale and Centennial have over 20.

Robert J. Arias with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools spoke about the success of the PBIS program, which stands for Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports. The program takes a restorative justice approach to school discipline, encouraging educators to implement alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.

Arias said he wants the district to work to “identify students in need” early so as to provide them with the support necessary for academic success. He hopes to overturn the notion that struggling students simply lack the will to do well and that through “explicit teaching” of positive behavior they can begin to make progress.

Other topics discussed included increased funding for early childhood education programs, creating community models, and alternative discipline practices.
Rudy Salas described the evening’s conversation as “very valuable,” saying he and his fellow lawmakers will take the ideas “back to the state capitol to continue to work on these issues.”  

Jesus Meraz, 22, is a student at CSU Bakersfield and a youth reporter for South Kern Sol.