A teen’s despair and charges of racism have put long-simmering grievances in the spotlight. But trouble is adolescence’s middle name, and how well schools deal with the demons on their shoulders can make all the difference.
Latisha Cyprian’s federal civil rights lawsuit, filed in February against Modesto City Schools, aims to force the district to confront disciplinary disparities affecting black children. Its basis is the involuntary transfer of her daughter to an alternative education program without a meeting to plead her case or discuss other options.
For a Beyer High honor roll student active in school sports, the sentence was devastating, Cyprian said. Her daughter, Doneisha Neal, committed suicide the next day, Feb. 6, 2015. She was 15.
“These children, and they are still children, need tools, need to communicate – something besides expulsion,” said a mother whose Beyer student knew Neal and was traumatized by her death. “She (Neal) saw between the cracks, they just wanted her to go away,” said the mother, who asked her name not be used, in order to protect her teen.
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Though few stories end as tragically as Neal’s, the statistics Cyprian’s lawsuit highlight around black children in Modesto City Schools are troubling, and persistent. Black children are significantly more likely to be suspended, sent to alternative schools or referred to special education than white children. In elementary school, fewer score at grade level in state tests than black children in other districts. In high school, fewer graduate.
“History carries over, in terms of the way groups perceive institutions that serve them, particularly if they have not not served them well,” said Pedro Noguera, with the Center for the Study of School Transformation at UCLA.
Noguera works with schools around issues of equity and race. He will be giving training to Modesto teachers this summer, but said his remarks applied to districts in general.
In a phone interview last week, he explained there are many ways to look at inequity, including proportionality in special education referrals, in students taking more challenging classes and kids participating in school activities.
History carries over, in terms of the way groups perceive institutions that serve them, particularly if they have not not served them well.
“What are the relationships like between African-American parents and the schools? Is there antagonism or suspicion that gets in the way of constructive relationships? Where do kids get help if they need it? Homework’s an equity issue that many times people ignore,” he said.
“You see where just horseplay gets kids suspended,” he said. “We know that is just not an effective way of changing behavior.”
But, Noguera added, numbers do not tell the whole story. “Where do you see African-American kids excelling, and what was different?” he asked.
For at least one excelling black teen at Modesto High, that would be caring teachers and the AVID program, a college-focused study-skills class serving 410 Panthers this year.
“School became my getaway. School is my happy place,” said Sweet Arianna Tevaseu, a senior. Today, the girl with the wide, confident smile and the quirky given name holds a 3.7 GPA and speaks with excitement about attending San Jose State this fall.
Nothing in the statistics suggest she should be doing so well.
“She overcame a lot of obstacles,” as counselor Marvin Greener put it, smiling back at Tevaseu.
Family members on drugs, living in “the jungliest place in west Modesto,” watching classmates parade new clothes she could not have – all that became a challenge to do better, Tevaseu said. Her grandparents have been her rock, she said, but caring teachers became her biggest motivators and AVID, a class she joined sophomore year, turned her life around.
“That’s when everything changed. I went to straight A’s,” she said. “Education is my biggest key to success.”
School kept her from hanging out with “the knuckleheads” getting into trouble, she said, adding she has seen the homes of some of those troubled teens and considers herself lucky. Tevaseu plans to major in sociology so she can help others, she said.
“I know what I’m doing will make a difference. I made a change from my family,” Tevaseu said.
School became my getaway. School is my happy place.
Sweet Arianna Tevaseu
A stable family made excelling easier, observed seventh-grader Sariyah Heidelberg King, a top student at Roosevelt Junior High who is biracial.
“We haven’t been moving around a lot,” said the avid watercolor painter and dancer, noting she has three supportive dads: her biological father, her sister’s father and her mom’s partner of 11 years. Her tight group of friends includes a mix of races, the 12-year-old said, looking perplexed by the question. “We’re all people,” she added.
The family is complicated, but stable and always positive, said mother Cassandra Heidelberg. “I think that she’s really smart. It’s just kind of in her to do her studies and do well,” she said.
Roosevelt Principal David Sanchez echoed that sentiment. “It comes down to the individual. Let’s look at this kid and what does that kid need to be successful,” he said.
Schools in many cases have a lot to cover to provide what each child needs. At some Modesto campuses, virtually every kindergartner arrives with so little vocabulary and so few social skills that teachers will spend much of the year bringing their charges up to where most middle class students start.
“We don’t blame the kids,” Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson said. “I don’t know of any doctor in this area that only sees healthy patients.”
Public schools take kids as they are, she said. The challenge is to create academic supports and behavioral interventions to meet their needs.
“As a district, we are constantly striving to meet the needs of all children, and we pay close attention to what we see is working and what is not,” said Modesto Superintendent Pam Able in an email.
“I am very proud of all the efforts of our staff, community and board. From Ed Miller to Madie Herrera to the Equity Committee and to the newly invigorated Dr. Parker Committee – we have a community of passionate people who want our students to be successful and are working hard to make that happen.”
The Dr. Parker Committee is a longstanding Modesto community group working to improve graduation rates of black students. Able included a list of efforts the district is making and plans to add specifically for black students. They include mentoring programs, more counseling and a drive to raise college focus.
We have a community of passionate people who want our students to be successful and are working hard to make that happen.
District preschool programs have a higher mix of black youngsters – 8 percent this year, Johnson noted. At Modesto’s high schools, her research showed, black students participate in sports, music programs and clubs at rates typical of other ethnicities.
Black student unions are reviving at most high schools, and the Davis High Black Student Union club won state BSU of the Year in 2016. Its adviser, teacher Renaldo Rucker, is state president this year.
The district is also meeting with parents, making home visits when needed, and providing due process interventions for black students being suspended or expelled, Able’s list shows.
A neutral adviser to help children being suspended or expelled navigate their options was proposed last year by the Advocates for Justice, a community group that lobbies for more student services, and school board members voiced support for the idea at the time. It is not clear if the district’s new program matches what the AFJ group had in mind.
The lack of such an avenue figures in the Cyprian lawsuit. For her daughter, a clash with a classmate quickly spiraled into the unraveling of hopes and dreams. Neal, who was black, and the other girl, who is white, got into an altercation in January 2015. The school’s response was swift. Neal was suspended, then sent to a different high school, where she again got in trouble and was told she was being transferred again. The white teen remained at Beyer.
Cyprian said she never learned what happened at the second school. Because of her age, Neal’s second transfer would have sent her to spend all day in a single classroom on a third campus, not Modesto’s Elliott Alternative Education Center. But the placement, nonetheless, would have meant leaving friends, sports and college-track classes behind.
Cyprian’s lawyer, Tim Pori, said the lawsuit’s basis comes from a lack of communication or appeal process for something so pivotal to a teen’s life prospects. Pori calls it de facto segregation, pointing to statistics showing black students are more likely to be transferred to alternative education than their white counterparts in Modesto City Schools.
We don’t blame the kids. I don’t know of any doctor in this area that only sees healthy patients.
The numbers appear to support his claim. Students at Elliott are 9.7 percent black, though they make up only 3.3 percent of students in Modesto City’s seven comprehensive high schools. Other district also have a gap, but not as stark.
Suspensions and expulsions at Modesto campuses have dropped dramatically in recent years as the district has instituted reforms, but a stubborn disparity remains for black students that experts say points to systemic problems – uneven enforcement or bias embedded in the rules. The district provided discipline statistics broken down by race, which is not generally available.
Those numbers for the 2015-16 year show Modesto’s black students were three times as likely to be suspended than other races, 16 percent compared to 5 percent for the district overall. For high school students, the number is higher. More than 1 in 5 black teens (20.7 percent) were suspended at least once. The list of offenses included threats, fights, habitual profanity, using drugs or sexual harassment.
State sanctions on Modesto City Schools, in place since 2012 for disproportionate discipline of its black special-education students, will lift at the end of this school year. A letter from the director of California’s Special Education Division says the district has brought the number of special-education suspensions and expulsions down to state averages.
By state figures, 22.4 percent of Modesto City’s black students were in special education, compared to 15.7 percent of white students. The statewide rate for special education placements across all races is 11.8 percent.
Under the sanctions, Modesto City Schools worked to lower discipline statistics for all its students. It developed tiered interventions, replacing punishments with supports, like counseling or mentoring, and keeping suspended students in study halls instead of sending them home.
The district has had social skills program called Peace Builders in all its elementary campuses for several years and is adding restorative justice programs, meant to defuse student conflicts. It has trained its yard duties, security personnel and administrators to recognize their own biases and better understand the needs of kids with difficult home situations.
The districtwide approach was hailed for its breadth and depth by the Region IX Equity Assistance Center at WestEd in 2015. At the time, Johnson called the effort a work in progress.
“We don’t have 100 percent of staff embracing the changes and I don’t know we ever will. Change is hard. It takes repeated conversations,” said Johnson, district lead on the project.
A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
Here are statistics showing disparities in Modesto City Schools for African American (AA) students vs. white (WH) students in graduation rates, graduates completing required courses to apply to state university systems, and students meeting English and math standards on annual state tests.
GRADUATION - Modesto City: AA 78 percent, WH 90 percent; Ceres Unified: AA 86 percent, WH 85 percent; Merced Union High: AA 88 percent, WH 91 percent
UC/CSU: Modesto City: AA 19 percent, WH 42 percent; Merced Union High: AA 26 percent, WH 38 percent; Statewide: AA 33 percent, WH 50 percent
PASSED TEST, ENGLISH: Modesto City: AA 20 percent, White 52 percent; Stanislaus County: AA 30 percent, WH 52 percent
PASSED TEST, MATH: Modesto City: AA 8 percent, WH 33 percent; Stanislaus County: AA 15 percent, WH 36 percent