“They suspended her 23 times in one year,” said Jessica Black, Lanyiah’s mother.RELATED: Our America: Women Forward
The suspensions started racking up in the third grade for Lanyiah: for chewing gum, for rolling her eyes, for being curious, according to her mother.
“It speaks to the racism that exists in this country. It speaks to the dehumanization of Black children. The education system has completely failed her. She hasn’t been in school since the seventh grade,” said Black.
As her disciplinary file grew Lanyiah was pushed out of school and into an independent education program within the district.
She meets with an educator once a week to go over assignments, but there’s no classroom environment, no interaction with students her age.
“When it comes to school it’s just like they demonized me. I wish they would have understood the level of trauma that I’ve been through,” said Green.
What’s happened to Lanyiah is emblematic of a larger, systemic issue.
Black and Latina children are disproportionately disciplined in school settings.
These students are pushed out of traditional classes which leads to learning loss and ultimately becomes a fast track on the school-to-prison pipeline.
Black girls are six times more likely to be expelled, three times more likely to be suspended, and four times more likely to be arrested than white girls, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
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It starts as early as pre-school with Black students making up just 20-percent of enrollment, but 54-percent of out-of-school suspensions, according to the Dept. of Ed.
An ABC7 analysis of California Department of Education disciplinary data shows Pittsburg Unified had the highest suspension rate for Black students of all other school systems in the Bay Area for the 2018-19 academic year.
In the seventh and eighth grades, Black girls were 14 times more likely than white girls to be suspended.
Of the 172 Black girls in the seventh and eighth grades in the district, there were 141 suspensions-nearly as many suspensions as there were Black female students.
Of the 37 white girls in those grades, only one was suspended: once.
“Data bleeds, there’s blood in those numbers. There’s hurt in those numbers. Those numbers shock the conscious,” said Tia Martinez, CEO of Forward Change.
Forward Change helps crunch the data for community groups pushing for social change like the Black Organizing Project (B.O.P.).
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B.O.P. has led the ten-year fight to remove school resources officers from Oakland Unified School District classrooms.
But as the organization celebrates a win in the passage of the George Floyd Resolution by OUSD, eliminating school resources officers within the district, during the decades-long movement more Black families have moved east to Contra Costa County.
They’ve settled in school districts like Pittsburg Unified and Antioch Unified where suspension rates have seen a steep increase.
“When you back up and you see all of these numbers, you see the same thing happening over and over again,” said Martinez. “It can’t be all Black middle school girls (having these issues) there’s got to be something systemic.”
ABC7 News reached out to Pittsburg Unified for comment and received the following statement from the district:
“While we have made progress district-wide, we are aware of the disproportionately high suspension rates for our African American students and continue to proactively work on this issue. Over the last three years, we have provided training in equity, social-emotional learning, and culturally responsive approaches to our staff, and continued staffing Restorative Justice facilitators at all secondary schools. We have further focused our efforts to address site-specific needs where the disproportionate suspensions are greater than the District average. In January we began a professional development series for all PUSD employees on Critical Race Theory for addressing “Student Achievement through the Creation of Strong Relationships” and are establishing equity teams at each school site. We have school site-based Coordination of Services/CARE Teams that identify students for support on the basis of both academic and behavioral data and then match students with academic, social, and/or family counseling, mental health support, and related services. We realize more work needs to be done and are committed to addressing disparities among our student groups.”
“I feel like the education system failed me. But I feel like there’s an intentionality in the way it fails Black students,” said Desiree McSwain, Black Organizing Project member.
McSwain’s story is similar to Lanyiah’s: disciplined repeatedly starting in elementary school for what she calls being colorful.
In middle school, she said she was suspended out of school at least eight times, sent to in-school suspension at least ten times, and received dozens of referrals to the office where she was sent to complete work with little supervision by administrators.
McSwain was eventually expelled after a fight with a boy on campus in high school. Like Lanyiah, she was also sent to an independent education program.
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However, McSwain managed to graduate a year early. A decade later, though, she still feels the effects.
“Now I’m 28 and I don’t know a lot of basic math. I feel a little bit setback in life in addition to being Black, in addition to being a woman I was set back by the education and the experiences that we had,” she said.
McSwain has two siblings: one was also sent to an independent education program and the other was expelled from school.
Thankfully for Lanyiah, she has found support in an education consultant who is pushing her to achieve, Ms. Aisha Money.
PUSD pays for Lanyiah to meet with Money for a limited number of hours a week, according to the family.
“All my students and my scholars, I see the potential in them. I see life in them,” said Money.
“If Lanyiah did not have Ms. Money she would be locked up or unfortunately she could even fall into sex trafficking just to be honest,” said Black.
“My whole purpose is to educate them and to help them understand that there is an importance of understanding the world and how things work. But also understanding yourself and your role and how you can be a positive contributing member to society,” said Money.
When asked about her dreams and what she plans to do when she gets older, Lanyiah lights up.
“The dreams I have for myself? I want to be an OBGYN, a female doctor that delivers babies and works with kids. I just like helping people,” said Green.
“It’s very simple to me. You want quality outcomes, you invest in the community, you invest in these students. That’s where the breakdown is and will remain until we find a way to repair this through financial means, through training, and through education,” said Money.
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These are the changes McSwain and Black are fighting for as organizers with the Black Organizing Project.
“It’s too late for just a conversation. It’s time for action. It’s time for real change,” said Black.
Those changes will likely be too late for Lanyiah who is in the tenth grade.
She may have been pushed out of school, but she is dedicated to learning and growing.
“I can be something. I know I am going to be whatever they said I wouldn’t,” said Green.
Leaders with BOP suggest removing police officers from school settings is among the first steps to reducing the disproportionate level of discipline Black and brown students face.
Martinez said while there is rich data provided from the California Department of Education on school discipline, the numbers are scarce when it comes to quantifying law enforcement interactions students have with school resource officers or police from outside departments responding to calls at schools.
Meanwhile, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) introduced a bill in late 2019 aimed at ending school push out, it has since stalled.
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