Kevin Epps' new film targets outsize black and latino student suspensions

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Photo courtesy of Kevin Epps and Coleman Advocates

A second grader recounts his school calling in the police to stop his tantrum. A young girl repeatedly suspended by her school lowers her head in sorrow. A community confronts a seemingly-violent teen who lost his way.

Kevin Epps' 2002 film Straight Outta Hunters Point pulled viewers through the painful churn of poverty in a historically black San Francisco neighborhood. In his newest film, Solutions not Suspensions, Epps shows viewers one systemic cause of poverty: kids who are suspended and sent out onto the streets, instead of embraced by their communities when they falter.

These students aren't only held back by each other, they're held back by their schools. Studies show African American and Latino students are disproportionately suspended compared to other ethnic groups, a topic we wrote about in our cover story "Suspending Judgement, [12/13]."

That's now changing, and Epps' film chronicles the efforts of Coleman Advocates and other youth groups to push the San Francisco Unified School District to implement Restorative Practices, a new form of discipline focusing on community-building as opposed to punishment.

The stakes are high. Though some argue students need punishment, the film (and Coleman Advocates) argue this is counter-intuitive. Suspensions don't heal wounds, don't address behavior, and exacerbate the school to prisons pipeline.

“I’m a troublemaker, I have a police record," one girl in the film says, talking about how her teachers and counselors no longer trust her. "They don’t care about me now.”

Restorative Practices are a new set of rules for handling conflict in SFUSD schools, calling for students and teachers in disagreements to enter into restorative circles to discuss their differences. One of the most powerful moments in Solutions not Suspensions puts you right in the middle of one teen's restorative circle.

A teenager sits in a room surrounded by teachers and his community. To his left is his crying mother, to his right is a man leading the restorative circle.

"I need for you to fall back a little bit from that man role in taking the lead," the man tells the teen. "Just be a young man. Enjoy this journey to being a man. One thing I know is you love that woman right there so much."

He points to the teens' crying mom. 

"I know you carry a heavy load sometimes," he says. "You worry about her, you worry about your family, and worrying about your family may be behind the decisions in life you made. But you’ve got a network of people. You’ve got to let us know about that load."

"You’ve got to tell us. You’ve got to tell us."

Epps told the Guardian that the teen had gotten into fights at school. He came from a broken home and his mother had troubles with substance abuse. The fight, Epps said, "was his cry for help." 

And that's the power of restorative practices, he said, it gives students help instead of sending them to the streets.

"Instead of suspending him they took him to the side," Epps said. "They said 'let’s talk about this.'"

Epps said Solutions not Suspensions has direct ties to his seminal film, Straight Outta Hunters Point, and its sequel. The kids suspended from schools, he said, were the same kids living in poverty and getting caught up in "mischievious things" in his other films.

"It’s a direct connection," he said.

Solutions not Suspensions premieres tonight at th San Francisco Public Library Main Branch, in the Latino room, at 6pm. Coleman Advocates will then host the film on their website for viewing, and announce a number of subsequent showings.

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