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Anthony Smith, Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, speaks during an Oakland Board of Education meeting at OUSD headquarters in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012. (Ray Chavez/Staff)

How is this possible?

One out of every three black boys in middle school in the Oakland public school system was suspended during the 2010-2011 academic year for bad behavior.

African-American boys make up 17 percent of Oakland public school students but were a whopping 42 percent of those suspended.

Those jarring findings released by the Urban Strategies Council in May led to a federal investigation of the Oakland school district for potential civil rights violations. As a result, Oakland school officials have agreed to allow federal monitoring of their efforts to reduce out-of-school suspensions of African-American students -- thus avoiding a federal lawsuit.

One would think that out-of-school suspension would be a course of last resort -- reserved for only those students who commit the most egregious offenses.

After all, children who get kicked out of school can't learn the material that is taught while they are forced to be absent. They fall behind in their classes, which increases the likelihood that they will drop out. Students who fail to graduate have a far greater chance of going down a path that leads to prison. Just ask some of the inmates at San Quentin.

The dropout rates of African-American boys in Oakland are off the charts, as they are in many urban school districts across the country. Oakland Unified School District launched the African-American Male Achievement Initiative in 2010 in an effort to address the academic achievement gap between black male students and their peers.

Yet much like harsh three strikes laws in the criminal justice system that have led to horrible societal consequences, so-called zero tolerance policies in our nation's schools have led to soaring suspension rates -- particularly for African-American boys.

At least 44 percent of OUSD suspensions of black male students were not for serious violations like bringing a weapon to school or harming another person.

The offense was "defiance," a vague term that depends upon a particular teacher or school administrator's perception of a student's behavior.

Is this a case of schools giving black boys unfair treatment? Or do African-American boys as a group act out more than their peers, resulting in their much higher suspension rates? Or some combination of the above?

There is a lot of ideologically driven rhetoric around the issue but no definitive answers.

What we do know is that something is terribly wrong and that it is not just a problem in Oakland but all over the country.

The Oakland school district is the first in California to allow federal monitoring of its plans to reduce out-of-school suspensions for black males. That includes training teachers and administrators at all 38 middle and high schools in conflict resolution and classroom management strategies to prevent situations that escalate into a suspension.

Oakland school officials also say that they will implement programs that encourage positive behavior in students rather than adhering to zero tolerance policies, which are merely punitive and do nothing to improve student behavior.

Kimberly Mayfield, chairwoman of the department of English at Holy Names University, who has monitored the issue closely, views Oakland's Voluntary Resolution Plan with the federal government as a step in the right direction.

Yet Mayfield questions whether OUSD, with so many new teachers and principals, has the infrastructure to implement what is essentially a drastic change in school culture.

A teacher who is new to a school is just learning his or her way around the classroom.

He or she is hardly equipped to handle students who are traumatized by violence and severely dysfunctional family circumstances.

Therein lies the crux of the problem. How can schools begin to effectively address the effects of urban violence and social dysfunction that are playing out in the classroom?

At least Oakland school officials seem to have come to a realization that putting kids who are damaged through no fault of their own back out on the street is not the answer.

"On one level, it's remarkable that they are performing at the level that they are," says Junious Williams, CEO of the Urban Strategies Council. "How can you concentrate on an academic subject when you are concerned about what you saw the night before and worried about how you are going to get home."

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/Tammerlin