OAKLAND -- The Oakland school board on Thursday night unanimously approved an agreement with the Office for Civil Rights to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions of its African-American students.
Parents, community organizers, district staff members and other leaders spoke passionately about the need to pass -- and to fully realize -- the plan, and to involve students, families and teachers in the push for change.
"We're here today to ante up and reclaim our children," said Chris Chatmon, director of the district's African American Male Achievement initiative.
Chatmon said the resolution will give the system the sense of urgency needed to change the status quo. He said that while African-American students made up 32 percent of OUSD's enrollment during the last school year, they received 63 percent of all suspensions.
This spring, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights began to investigate whether the school district treated black students more harshly than white students. Now that the board has approved the resolution, that investigation will come to a halt.
Arthur Zeidman, who directs the San Francisco field office for the Office for Civil Rights, came to the school board meeting. He stressed that while the agreement was binding, it would be a cooperative relationship. He said the office pursued a resolution with Oakland because "there was work to be done in Oakland, and Oakland was willing to do it."
The department, he said, wanted "to put our resources toward a project that could result in real change."
The five-year plan, which builds on ongoing programs such as restorative justice, focuses initially on 38 of the district's 86 schools. Its goals include an overall reduction in out-of-school suspensions, as well as the suspensions of African-American and special education students, who are far more likely to be sent home from school than their peers.
On Thursday, a number of people urged the board to improve the quality of teaching and curriculum in its schools, not only to focus on behavior.
"In my opinion, the best discipline policy is engaged instruction," said Greg Hodge, a former Oakland school board member.
The plan would emphasize a reduction in defiance-related suspensions; civil rights advocates argue that "defiance," as grounds for suspension, is poorly defined.
A recent analysis by the Urban Strategies Council found that 44 percent of the school system's black males who received suspensions in 2010-11 were suspended solely for defying authority. About 75 percent of the suspensions of black males were on the basis of defiance, threatening or attempting injury and obscenity, according to the agreement.
One mother said her son, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound sophomore at Castlemont High School, tends to speak out when he feels wronged. "Him speaking out is intimidating to his teachers," she said.
The last time the Oakland school district reached such a resolution with the Office for Civil Rights was nearly 20 years ago. Some noted the lack of progress. But Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research organization whose mission is to promote social and economic equity, had a different perspective.
"I have no sense that we're going in circles," Glover Blackwell said. The district might be revisiting the same issues they have in the past, but, she said, it is "spiraling upward."
At the end of the hearing, Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith thanked those who spoke in support of the plan.
"The feeling in the room tonight -- the energy, the tone, the civility -- is different tonight for you having been here," he said.