At the start of each school year, Emma Snuggs has a serious talk with her kids about how to stand up for themselves in the classroom.
She and two of her sons are Cherokee nation citizens, but the boys attend public school in Sacramento. So she reinforces their beliefs, and emphasizes that not everyone is going to agree with their views or how they live.
“And that’s OK,” Snuggs said. “And you shouldn’t have to accommodate them, and oftentimes their ignorance, in order to fit in.”
A new statewide report from the Sacramento Native American Higher Education Collaborative and San Diego State University confirms why she has these conversations. It shows these students are suspended at twice the rate of other kids.
Snuggs and other Native American parents say their children are frequently suspended for trying to practice their customs and beliefs. She remembers her oldest, now 17, getting into a fight in the second grade after another boy bullied him for wearing his hair long, which is in the Cherokee tradition. Rather than use it as an educational moment, Snuggs said the teacher suspended her son and let the other boy off the hook.
She said that was the year he cut his hair short and stopped trusting the school system.
“At that point, he decided he just didn’t like teachers,” she said. “That space for learning about Native culture ... that just isn’t there. And it creates animosity and heartache, really.”
Parents interviewed for the report shared stories about teachers punishing their children for smelling like sage after a cultural ceremony or mistaking tribal garments for gang paraphernalia.
Report authors used self-reported school suspension and expulsion data from the California Department of Education, which did not provide CapRadio with a comment on deadline for this story.
The data showed that 7.2 percent of Native American students in California schools are suspended at least once, compared to 3.5 percent of all children. The problem is worse for Native American boys, who were suspended at a rate of 9.6 percent.
In one school district in Humboldt County, more than 71 percent of Native American boys had been suspended. The top counties, when ranked by expulsion rate for Native American boys, were Kings, Yuba and Tulare.
Dahlton Brown, executive director of education for the Wilton Rancheria in Elk Grove, said these disparities tie back to Native American children who were sent to boarding schools in the late 19th century and forced to assimilate to white culture.
“When we hear stories about our native students being punished for advocating their own truth, their own stories, it’s a repetition of that historical narrative,” he said.
The study recommends school districts train teachers and administrators on Native American customs.
Emma Snuggs is optimistic about the situation improving.
“I hope we’re able to spark change before my one-year-old has to face those same questions and that same ridicule and that lack of support in the classroom,” she said.
As for her oldest, he’s become active in Native American youth groups and recently started growing his hair long again.