TRACY (student) – I was suspended for “willful defiance”.
MARTHA (James’ mother)- “Willful Defiance.” Isn’t that what you had last time?
JAMES — Uh huh.
MARTHA — What’s that mean?
JAMES — Everything.
TRACY — Anything.
— (ZERO, Act One, by Julie Marie Myatt)
Last August, Darryl White, president of the Black Parallel School Board walked onto the stage of Sacramento’s Guild Theater after Act One of ZERO, a play that’s part of the program, Talk It Out: A Community Conversation to Fix School Discipline.
Turning to the standing-room-only crowd, he asked: “How many people know someone who’s been suspended from school?”
Nearly every hand went up. Heads swiveled in surprise at how many people had been touched. But for those who’ve been grappling with issue, the damage caused by disproportionate and high suspension rates has been mounting and spreading like an underground toxic plume for years.
ZERO, an innovative play in which White threw questions out to the audience between acts, distills the real stories and the real emotions behind the numbers in Sacramento. It revealed the indiscriminate use of suspensions from the points of view of African-American student James, aka ZERO, his teacher, his counselor, his principal, his parent, his girlfriend, a bully, and his estranged father.
“People talk about this issue, but they never hear the young person’s and parents’ point of view about zero tolerance,” says Carl Pinkston, secretary of the Black Parallel School Board. “The play humanizes it.”
“As much as the students are struggling, the teachers struggle, too, because they don’t get a lot of help,” said Spenser Bradley, then an Inderkum High School student who played the teacher and who is now a student at the University of San Francisco. “The principals didn’t want to help and the schools didn’t want to help. But everyone has to contribute.”
Several years of efforts by the community to do something about high suspension rates preceded the play. White, from his experience as principal at three different schools, knew that a different approach was possible. He’d eliminated suspensions and given his teachers the tools and skills to work with students who needed help. Pinkston, who takes the point of view of a community organizer, sees the results of the overuse of suspensions every day. The school-to-prison pipeline was churning youth through its soul-eating system and spitting them out — hopeless and angry — onto his streets.
TEACHER — How am I supposed to teach anything with so many kids, who need my time and energy and attention? Who have difficult home lives?
PRINCIPAL — I understand that. I don’t make the rules.
TEACHER — And without job stability? How many times do I have to say it? I get fired every year. Last year I got rehired the night before classes were to start for the new school year. The night before! How can a person live like this, and, and teach and inspire young people? It’s like living in a terrorist state.
PRINCIPAL — Again, I’m sorry. It’s terrible…I don’t make the rules.
TEACHER — Who does?
PRINCIPAL — Well, the, the–
TEACHER — Who makes the rules?
— (ZERO, Act Two, by Julie Marie Myatt)
Two years ago, the Black Parallel School Board held a forum on discriminatory zero-tolerance policies that were creating an achievement gap among children of color. “We realized that we had to deal with school discipline policies that led to the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Pinkston.
They received a grant from the California Endowment to address the issue under the Endowment’s Boys and Men of Color Initiative. Shortly thereafter, an Endowment program officer introduced them to representatives of Cornerstone Theater Company, a 27-year-old Los Angeles-based traveling theater company. Cornerstone creates original plays based on real stories and first person experiences from community members and then puts community members onstage next to professional actors in the performance of those plays. They said they were planning on doing a play related to school discipline, a program funded by the Endowment that travels to cities around California.
“In each city our playwrights write a new play based on the stories they hear in the community and each play has a its own title,” said Ashley Teague, Cornerstone’s business development director.
“We thought it was a really really great idea,” recalls Pinkston. “We told them: ‘Let us know when you get ready to do one in Sacramento.’ They said, ‘By the way, you’re first.'”
Using contacts and resources provided by Pinkston and White, the Cornerstone staff compiled a list of young people from Grant, Inderkum and American Legion High Schools. They also recruited parents and school staff.
“The first time we met, a huge group of us sat down. We introduced ourselves, and were given free rein to talk,” says Bradley.
The theater staff asked questions, videotaped people’s responses, and prepared a script. Some actors were recruited from the group, and the theater company provided a couple of professional actors.
The first time they performed the play, it was for legislators and their staff members in the State Capitol. “I thought only 20 people would show up,” said Pinkston. “The room was packed — 70 people watched.” And the buzz began.
“I know that a lot of the people were taken aback,” said Bradley. “People don’t realize how bad it can get. It was touching to me because people seemed to really care about the situation, because that gave us hope for change.”
In August 2012, by the time they presented the play at the Guild Theater, so many people had heard about the play that tickets were sold out.
“The play shows how the teachers and administrators are under constant pressure to perform,” said Pinkston. “They’re under siege. They’re forced to get rid of the kids they don’t want to teach. Parents don’t have a lot of time and attention to work with kids, because they’re working two or three jobs. So, the community has to take some ownership about what’s going on.”
At the end, the students, teachers, parents and community members in the audience were gripped with sadness and frustration at the heavy odds against James, the main character. “This whole experience has been humanizing,” said White. “The play’s a microcosm that what actually happens in schools.”
Half of the 200 people in the audience filled out comment cards. More than half felt the play had challenged or changed their opinion. Some of the comments:
*We must come up with a different way to deal with discipline in school. Suspension is the not the answer.”
*I plan to push harder to start this conversation within my school community and advocate for a shift toward supporting each other and developing strengths-based schools.”
*I am willing to challenge the rate of suspensions at my school.”
*I will support legislation to fund schools & change school discipline to provide restorative practices & social-emotional learning for school community.”
*I am a middle school teacher (34 years)…. I have “James” in my classes. James deserves every bit of help; however, standing in front of the class looking out, I see 34 other students waiting for me to do something with disruptive students. The school do not have the personnel to work “deeply” with James. I talk to parents after school for hours, but during class, I have to educate the non-James.”
RANDALL (James’ father) — Making mistakes does not make you a bad person. It makes you human. Some of us just make bigger mistakes, with consequences, and we pay the price. But it doesn’t mean we are bad. Bad people. That’s society’s label. The way they keep us down. Not the truth.
JAMES — But what’s going to happen to me? Everyone tells me I’m nothing–
RANDALL — Don’t listen to them.
JAMES — I feel like everyone expects me to fail.
RANDALL — They do. Don’t listen to them.
— (ZERO, Act Three, by Julie Marie Myatt)
“I thought it was a really good opportunity to have students’ voices heard, because a lot of time, students voices don’t get heard at all,” said Bradley. But….”one play, one story is not enough. There needs to be more, something that’s constantly brought up, to make lasting change.”
More is happening. Creating and performing the play galvanized the community to take a serious stab at making that change. White and Pinkston have had three meetings with 16 principals and vice-principals from Sacramento City Unified School District, as well as the superintendent. Out of the meetings emerged a partnership that includes the district, the Black Parallel School Board, the California Endowment and a representative from the juvenile court.
“We will continue our meetings with the principals and come up with a design that we believe can make changes necessary to reduce suspensions,” said White. “The change won’t happen overnight. The whole system needs to change over time. Part of that is getting each stakeholder that has to change to have accountability.”
Last month, Cornerstone staff held another series of story-gathering meetings with students, parents, teachers and policy makers in Sacramento. Based on those stories, professional playwright Julie Marie Myatt has written a play entitled Willful. at 10:30 a.m. on June 26, 2013, community members will perform a staged reading of the play in the State Capitol. Assembly member Roger Dickinson will introduce the play. Dickinson is author of AB420, which prevents expulsion and limits suspension for willful defiance. It also encourages schools to use alternative methods to deal with behavior issues.
This is one of a series of articles about how schools in California are moving from a punitive to a supportive, compassionate approach to school discipline. The series is funded by the California Endowment. We’ve also created Compassionate Schools, a “mind map” of the landscape of school discipline in California. It organizes the issue into an easy interactive graphic. It will be updated regularly.