Over the last year, there have been multiple race-related incidents in the Sacramento City Unified School District that could be qualified as hate speech.
In one case, a student wrote “colored” and “white” on the water fountains at McClatchy High. In another, two students graffitied the N-word in a hallway at Rosemont High. And last week, two middle school students distributed fake money, labeled “N-bucks,” at Kit Carson International Academy. In all three events, the students were Black and incurred multiple-day suspensions.
As Sacramento City Unified’s diversity, inclusion and equity monitor — and as an African American — Mark Harris says he feels conflicted after seeing these incidents within his own community.
“How could any person do this to begin with, but particularly aimed at oneself?” he asked. “It's loading the gun and aiming it at yourself and pulling the trigger. I don't understand it.”
Mark Harris is the diversity, equity, and inclusion monitor at Sacramento City Unified School District. He works independently of the district to assess practices at school sites.Robert Maryland / Sacramento Observer
But Lorreen Pryor, president of Black Youth Leadership Project and who is an advocate for Black youth in Sacramento County, says students have a hard time navigating what spaces are socially appropriate.
“This term is being used in our culture or at our home. And there are some things we don't say in mixed company,” Pryor explained. “But in a school setting, there are specific rules in place and [students]struggle to figure out how to live according to those rules.”
From a Kendrick Lamar track to a friendly greeting, the N-word occupies a variety of spaces for the Black community. But when culture and societal guidelines intersect on school campuses in Sacramento, Black students are often more likely to be on the receiving end of punitive actions for using the word.
Suspension of Black students remains high in Sacramento City
In a district like Sacramento City Unified, which had the third highest suspension rate for Black students in the state in 2020, another series of suspensions is cause for concern. Researchers and activists are pressing district administrators to reconsider suspensions, which impact mental health, educational outcomes and, importantly, discount a student’s background.
Excessive use of out-of-school suspensions could also be contributing to the lowered educational outcomes in the district. Black students in Sacramento experience gaps in literacy and math, and 28% of the Sacramento City Unified’s students are reported to be chronically absent.
A 2021 study by the American Institutes for Research confirms that exclusionary disciplining practices, like out-of-school suspensions, do not improve student behavior, increase academic achievement or produce a positive school climate. And the more severe the exclusionary discipline, the greater the decline in the student’s performance, attendance and behavior.
Pryor has been tracking the over-disciplining of Black students in the region. “What I see is a disproportionate way of applying certain disciplinary codes to Black students,” Pryor said. “And that's throughout all the school districts, but particularly with Sacramento City Unified."
Lorreen Pryor is the president and CEO of the Black Youth Leadership Project in Sacramento and helms the podcast Black V. Board of Education.Louis Bryant III / Sacramento Observer
She is also part of the intervention between disciplined students and the school administration. However, she says the district has not reached out to her for her mitigation work.
“We've offered our services to go in and sit with the young people to find out ‘why’ without passing judgment,” Pryor said.
Dr. Kristee Haggins, the founder of Safe Black Space in Sacramento and a psychologist, underscored the mental health impacts of suspension. However, the critical piece for Haggins is the eventual school-to-prison pipeline that comes from the distrust of the educational system.
“There's lots of potential impacts on these students that may not have been considered in the decision to suspend them for that amount of time,” Haggins said. “What they do now becomes a part of their academic record, then might lead to potential expulsion or getting moved into an alternative school. There's this whole pathway that is differential for our Black students.”
Haggins says internalized racism can play a role in race-related incidences witnessed in Sacramento County’s schools.
“Internalized racism in the Black community is the idea of someone of a marginalized identity taking in all the negative narratives about who we are, stereotypes about us, and internalizing them and that becoming the lens from which we live our life,” Haggins explained. “It can show up in jokes about oneself.”
Administrators, community debate response to race-related incidents
The debate about race-related incidents in Sacramento City Unified hinges on the education code, which calls upon the school principal to provide proper assessment, and determine alternative punishments and possible suspensions.
Harris, who has been recruited in an independent capacity to hold districts accountable, has been wavering between punitive action and restorative justice. He feels there needs to be equal treatment of Black and white students to set the precedent that racism is unacceptable on campus.
“I hope coming from this, we will finally have the energy behind the restorative component in addition to the punitive,” he explained. “But I don't believe you replace one with the other. If these were Caucasian kids, I’d feel the same way.”
From right to left: Jada Trowell, 18, Keila Lee, 23, and Jalen Scott, 21, have warmup conversations before going live on the podcast Black V. Board of Education.Louis Bryant III / Sacramento Observer
Black students in Sacramento discussed the suspension of the two students at Kit Carson on their podcast, Black V. Board of Education, which is hosted by Pryor. Their dialogue parallels that of Harris.
In an episode titled “You Can’t Ignore Your Way Out Of This,” 21-year-old Jalen Scott said: “If we’re the ones that are bringing [things with hateful rhetoric], then it makes it seem like it's OK for everyone to do it.”
All six students on the podcast agree that the content disseminated at Kit Carson is unacceptable, but are not unanimous regarding the punishment of the hateful rhetoric.
Anaya Wilson says she is unsure if the consequence of hate speech from within the community should go as far as suspension. “If I were to see that at my school campus, I’d want an apology because [it] made me feel bad,” the 17-year-old said.
A co-host on the podcast, 18-year-old Jada Trowel, disagrees. “An apology sounds nice but what happens if they do it again. It’s like punching somebody in the face, saying sorry and then doing it again,” she said, “I think suspension for bullying and hate speech is appropriate.”
Scott, a graduate of Sacramento County’s schools, wondered if it was “possible for the school to make [students] take a course to make them understand the [N-] word?”
‘We need to do a better job in teaching them what that N-word means’
Solutions like the one Scott asks for are being explored by Harris as Sacramento City Unified DEI monitor.
“Three incidents ago, I made the proposal to the district that they incorporate cultural awareness and restoration through work with the NAACP and Betty Williams,” he said.
Williams, president of the Greater Sacramento NAACP, agrees with Harris on the need for accountability, but differs in the application of the term.
“I think accountability can be defined in different ways. And suspension is not necessarily one of them,” she said.
Betty Williams is the president of the Greater Sacramento NAACP.Verbal Adam / Sacramento Observer
Williams says it is paramount to contextualize the use of the N-word in Black settings versus white.
“If I have a white student that's handing out literature with the N-word negatively, that's closer to a hate crime,” she said.
For Williams, the intent behind a Black students’ use of the N-word or distributing “N-bucks” stems from ignorance.
“It's a red flag that we need to do a better job in teaching them what that N-word means,” she said. “And I think the punishment should be some type of education, whether it's within the NAACP or Urban League that teaches how our history is so rich with kings and queens.”
Pryor echoes a restorative justice approach with cultural context.
“I don't like suspension, but that seems like that's the only thing available or at the disposal of administrators in these districts,” she said. “Why is that the only thing that they can do? There's no creativity that goes into any of this.”
Harris has proposed a district policy to ban use of the N-word at schools for administrators, staff and teachers. When advocates like Williams and Pryor are asked about it, they say it will continue to negatively affect Black administrators, teachers and staff.
They are hoping for educational intervention, which they say is required to manage internalized racism, and that any future suspensions will continue to disproportionately impact Black students.
Srishti Prabha is a Report For America corps member and Education Reporter in collaboration with The Sacramento Observer and CapRadio. Their focus is on K-12 education in Black communities.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Dr. Kristee Haggins' name. It has since been updated.
Clarification: Since publication of this story, we added context to Harris’ proposed plan for banning use of the N-word. We also clarified that SCUSD’s state ranking for suspension rates is from 2020.
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