Recently the San Francisco Examiner reported that in the 2013-2014 school year, students with disabilities made up 11% of the high school student population, but those same students made up 37% of suspensions.
Why are SFUSD students with disabilities being suspended at disportionately higher rates?
This fact is staggering and is not aligned with the social justice, inclusion and equity values that we believe in as a city. The article revealed that for some students, their "behavioral challenges" are related to their disability - concerning because students may be disciplined for behaviors linked to their disability.
San Francisco's Board of Education has begun to address the disproportionate application of suspensions in its 2015 resolution, Solutions Not Suspensions, championed by Coleman Advocates and Commissioner Matt Haney. Alternatives to suspensions was a game changer because it brought to the forefront an issue that still is highly discriminatory and harmful to many African American and Latino students.
Addressing the racial bias with a mandate to keep our kids in school was clear, but the Examiner's article reveals that we have to be just as in our efforts to address the same issues for students with disabilities.
Depending on how you look at it, the encouraging - or incredibly troubling part - of this issue is that San Francisco is leading the way on reducing suspensions nationally. The rate of students with disabilities being suspended across the country is even worse. It is a cold reminder that the disability community is too often marginalized in our society and social justice movement.
These issues we're seeing in schools connect to the lack of acceptance and participation in the workforce. Our kids with disabilities already have a massive hill to climb, and taking them out of school because of behaviors linked to their disability does nothing to build them up or prepare them for entering a work environment. In California, 67% of people with disabilities are unemployed. That's not a reality we're willing to accept. We need solutions for school sites and employers if we're going to be serious about solving this issue.
We need a culture shift to normalize disabilities. SFUSD has an opportunity to pave the way to educate everyone - students, teachers, parents and the broader community - that we can no longer discriminate against people with disabilities - but instead we should be working together to find alternative paths for people to be successful. We cannot punish kids for disabilities and behaviors outside of their control.
Our schools and our city should be leading the way in improving our schools, lifting up and hiring more people with disabilities and working to get them in leadership roles.
We have always been a city that aspires to accept and celebrate people no matter who they are or where they come from. When we're suspending our students with disabilities at such alarming rates, we are not living up to our values as a city.
Let's stop casting our youth with disabilities away, and empower them to be productive, empowered and integrated members of our community.
Jonathan Lyens is a candidate for District 1 Supervisor and San Francisco native Stevon Cook is a candidate for San Francisco Board of Education.