Sixteen-year-old Xavier B. wasn’t supposed to return to school until January.
The South San Francisco teen was caught selling marijuana at school and was expelled. His story isn’t unique.
Derrick G., a 13-year-old, got in trouble for bringing a
butterfly knife to school right before summer break. He was expelled
and had to spend time in juvenile hall. He also was not scheduled to
return to school until January.
During the 2008-09 school year, 342 students were expelled in
San Mateo County. Seventy-two of those were from the South San
Francisco Unified School District, according to the California
Department of Education. Often times, the teens end up at either a
continuation or community day school. While both are good alternatives,
the smaller communities without as many extracurricular opportunities
are not a fit for all.
Patrick Lucy, who works for the San Mateo County Sheriff’s
Office, was tired of running into kids he watched grow up alongside his
own daughter end up making bad decisions.
“I was pissed,” he said.
Thankfully, Lucy is the kind of guy who gets motivated when he
wants things to change. He set out to change what happens after these
students make decisions that get a student kicked out of school. This
month, the South San Francisco Unified High School District had seven
boys and their parents participate in as yet unnamed five-day pilot
program aimed at giving expelled students the chance to reflect,
evaluate their decision-making skills, learn about opportunities and
return to school. But it’s not just about the kids. Parents and legal
guardian participate as well, making the program an educational
experience for everyone. Those seven students all started at new,
traditional schools within the district on Tuesday — just like the
majority of students within the district.
The idea started out of frustration. Lucy saw students get
expelled, spend their time outside of the classroom and then go back to
school. Sometimes the student was in a different school but there was
no other help for students and parents.
Lucy recalled being a youth who didn’t listen to his parents, so
why would we expect that from these kids? He didn’t. Instead, Lucy
asked for help from probation officers, and people involved with
rehabilitation programs Project Ninety and the Jericho Project to speak
with the students. Doing so allowed adults — many of whom have made
many of the same bad decisions that got the kids expelled — to talk
about the ramifications of continuing to make negative decisions.
“It has been surreal for me to see all this come together and
the impact it has made on all of us,” said board President Liza
Normandy, which included the people who helped it come together,
speakers, students and parents. “There were tears, hugs and through it
all we all learned. ... Those guest speakers were powerful and gave our
youth hope, advice and guidance to make the choice to make it better.
As a member of the Board of Trustees, I am proud that we were able to
provide such an alternative for our students.”
Joel Rebello, counselor for the district who worked with the
group over the five days, saw the best responses from the students when
talking with people from Project Ninety and Jericho Project.
“They told the boys to speak up. They already got in trouble.
That kind of honesty, and to bring it up in front of the students,
[really impacted the students],” he said.
It wasn’t just about talking. The students visited the jail and
spent one day doing community service cleaning up the Baden High School
Lucy stood before the guys and their parents on the program’s
last day — Monday night — and asked who thought the outside work was
punishment. A couple of hands went up. Did anyone disagree?, he asked.
“It’s like we’re giving back for the stuff we did,” said 13-year-old Derrick G.
Lucy agreed. Getting into trouble is not just about the person who ends up punished; it affects others too.
“You’ve taken up a lot of people’s time,” said Lucy who noted
the paperwork and meetings that go along with a possible expulsion.
Then there is also the impact on the person’s family. And negative decisions do impact families.
Take 13-year-old Robert T., who was having a tough time at
school, for example. He was getting into fights and the final straw was
when he got caught selling codeine pills, all due, he said, to peer
pressure. His mom saw this but admitted to being lenient about it all.
Derrick G.’s aunt felt disconnected to what was going on. She
pointed to the difference in age and literally a lack of information
about his world as it is vastly different from that of her own
Kids and parents/guardians alike took quizzes to learn about
their decision-making style, or lack thereof, drugs, alcohol and peer
pressure. And altogether, the group learned about things everyone
missed like how many calories are in one ounce of alcohol or the best
way to deal with someone on heroin.
“This is really education for the parent as well. I feel empowered,” said Derrick G.’s aunt.
She may not know all the answers, but she felt better prepared to deal with the issues now.
And the parents weren’t alone. As the last meeting got to the
halfway point, a parent asked what the teens wanted to change about
Changing the decision-making process was a universal answer
amongst the youth. And all were excited about the opportunity to go
back to school, a different one from the one they attended when they
got into trouble and were optimistic about the fresh start.
Mel C., 17, started at South San Francisco High on Tuesday.
Since he was expelled in January, he hasn’t been doing much. Without
the program, that’s what he would be doing today — literally. Instead
he’s in class, working toward an education he may not have otherwise
Trustee Maurice Goodman stressed the importance of supporting students who simply made a bad decision.
“I see a lot of these kids in myself. These kids are me. We see
a lot of ourselves on them. We want to focus on them. … This is a
change-their-life opportunity,” he said.
The alternative to expulsion program is just beginning. It’s an
attempt to look at discipline in a different light. Goodman was hopeful
to see the program be offered more often and to more students going
Rebello echoed the hope for reaching more students.
“A lot of my kids could use this,” he said.
He plans to hold a focus group with the students in the future
to check in. Parents also put contact information together at the end
of the program. Lucy suggested if anyone needed help to simply ask,
reach out to someone else.
Starting a new program during a time when most districts are
laying people off may seem counterintuitive. This pilot program is
volunteer-based at this point with the only cost being Rebello’s hours
over the five days, since he’s a district employee, said John Thompson,
assistant superintendent of personnel for the district. Of course,
Thompson doesn’t expect to sustain it at that level always, but the
learning experience will hopefully create a new opportunity for
students within the district.
Normandy has already noticed a difference in the small group of teens who took part in the inaugural group.
“As I dropped off my freshman to South San Francisco High School
on the first day school,” she said, “I ran into one of the alternative
to expulsion students and he had on his new shoes, a smile and shared
his commitment to make his life better not just for himself, but for