New CA law aims to keep foster students in school

When Betty Williams received calls from a high school vice principal saying her granddaughter was late, she believed the school was looking to build a case and suspend her granddaughter over attendance.

Williams’ granddaughter is in foster care and relies on assigned transportation to and from school which occasionally doesn’t get her to school on time. Each time she’s late, she gets marked down. Too many marks can lead to suspension or expulsion.

Like many parents and guardians, Williams sees school discipline disproportionately affecting the education of African American students, especially Black foster kids.

That’s why she was relieved Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed a law that redefines the process for disciplinary actions such as suspensions or expulsion to better protect California students receiving foster care, giving the foster child’s legal counsel more opportunities to speak up.

Prior to the signing, schools were only required to contact the parent or guardian at least five days prior to meeting to discuss the possibility of suspension or expulsion.

The new law expands the number of people who must be informed if a foster student is facing serious discipline by giving notification rights to the student’s attorney or county social worker. It aims to ensure the child has a “qualified person advocating on their behalf,” as the law’s author, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, wrote in a statement on his legislation.

The law also extends those rights to an indigenous child’s tribal social worker, or county worker.

“The worst injustice anywhere is not allowing justice or a voice everywhere for our most vulnerable youth of all races and circumstances,” Williams, president of the Greater Sacramento NAACP, said at a press conference earlier this week.

Dr. J. Luke Wood, an equitable education advocate, joined Williams at the press conference in celebrating the new law.

Wood shared his experiences growing up as a foster care youth and how he was stigmatized by teachers, administrators, and even peers.

Wood is now a professor at San Diego State University who co-authored the “Capitol of Suspensions” series and “Suspending Our Future” survey released by the Black Minds Matter Coalition. The reports showed Sacramento County schools disproportionately used serious discipline against Black males and foster students.

“In Sacramento County we find that there are some of the highest suspensions in the entire state of California,” said Wood during a press conference. “When you look even closer at those districts what you’ll find is that the highest suspensions are Black students and fostered youth.”

According to Wood’s survey “Capitol of Suspensions II”, the Sacramento City Unified School District suspended 36.8% of Black male foster care students in 2019, compared to the statewide average of 15%.

Elk Grove Unified School District suspended more Black students than any district in California in 2019 and the Sacramento City Unified School District was listed at fourth in the state based on data the researchers examined.

The surveys collectively determined that Black students in Sacramento County were the most suspended in California among all ethnic groups.

Wood said that the suspensions are the highest in early childhood development such as kindergarten to third grade.

Ed Howard, senior counsel at Children’s Advocacy Institute at the University of San Diego School of Law called the new law a “civil rights bill” that benefits foster children.

“It extends our foster youth’s educational rights to a fully fledged education, not being suspended, not being involuntarily transferred and not being expelled,” said Howard. “(It’s) basics of due process of notice and opportunity to be heard, be able to argue for and protect their fundamental right for an education.”

Marcus D. Smith: 916-321-1755, @SirMarcusSmith