Recently, I was moved to tears by the HBO Real Sports coverage of an Iowa high school student who was killed when her motorbike struck a tree. I also was reduced to tears this summer when a Washington, DC, high school student I had met was shot and killed over his shoes. In many respects, the two were the same. She was a talented volleyball player; he was a talented musician. His classmates, playful and loving just like hers, mourned him and continue to do so, just as her classmates mourn her. For both students, their friends made t-shirts to commemorate their memories, and their funeral services were packed with people paying their respects.
Their similarities probably don’t end there, but one difference sets them worlds apart. She was white, he was black. Our collective, societal response to his death is different than it is for hers and is partly based on the flawed assumption that he died in the way that was meant for him and for other black boys and men.
The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a symptom of a larger ailment—the institutionalized belief of black inferiority, that black and brown children are inherently unworthy of, untrained for, and uninterested in grasping the opportunities to which they have ready access. As a society, we have worked to treat our symptoms. The Brown v. Board of Education strategy and ultimate court victory and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are the most prominent examples of our efforts to eliminate the idea of black inferiority and to critically examine the notion of equal access to opportunity, particularly in education. But we have yet to achieve full health, making clear the answer in the affirmative to Talib Kweli’s rhetorical question, “Is it the mind state that’s ill?”
The reason the story of the Iowa student is universally tragic is that we eagerly recognize that her youth must maintain its incubator of purity in order for her to reach her full potential. We do not afford the DC student the same recognition of purity. Our schools are not immune from this sickness and have been steeped in the fallacies of this broken belief system, which no longer requires only white faces to function, for too long.
By now, we all know the numbers. Black, Native American and Latino students are disproportionately suspended, expelled from school and referred to law enforcement as a consequence for behavior that does not comply with improperly calibrated standards set for them.
How do we get healthy? First, we must take ownership of the numbers, which are a critical starting point for partnership in strategy. There are statistics to support any narrative we create. If that narrative is one of failure for black children or about what the system is doing to children of color, then there are statistics to tell that story. Rarely do we see the numbers about what children of color accomplish in spite of the system or that reveal a more complete educational narrative:
- Black, Native American and Latino children are eligible for Advanced Placement courses at much higher rates than they are permitted to enroll in such courses.
- Although the rates of detention and criminalization have increased for black children in recent years, black children experience less violence today than they did pre-1980, when the rate of violence was relatively low.
- The largest racial disparities that we see in student discipline are in subjectively defined discipline categories such as disrespect, insubordination and disorderly conduct rather than the firmly objective categories of bringing a weapon or drugs to school.
Once we have command of the numbers, we can form strategic alliances and join the national grassroots movement against the school-to-prison pipeline:
- Get to know the schools that are getting it right, devising methods of educating children, securing schools and correcting behavior without setting children up for failure.
- Partner with the Dignity in Schools Campaign member organization closest to you.
- Convince your employer to adopt a school for mentoring and financial support purposes.
- Attend school board meetings and push for alternatives to exclusionary student discipline practices—such as Social Emotional Learning, restorative justice, Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)—that have been proven to, at the very least, reduce overall the number of students kicked out of school.
- Make sure that school resource officers, when schools insist on their presence, are not simply police officers who work in the schools, but are individuals trained in community support and child development and do not bring their weapon or handcuffs to school or wear a police uniform in the school building. Remember the school is not a correctional facility, but should be a nurturing environment for high-level learning.
- When an individual child is unfairly disciplined, use the opportunity to think carefully of systemic remedies that will change the larger institution and adjust mindsets.
- Insist on meaningful parent engagement in schools rather than superficial parent involvement.
- Reach out. Host intra-community dialogue between private and public school students and families. Encourage inter-racial community discussion about how we as a society can support all of our children the same. Think creatively about public agency partners—social workers and public service providers, fire departments and museums—to help schools provide a rich educational experience for all of their students.
Above all else, take action as though the children you advocate for are your loved ones and deserve a childhood protected by the purity necessary to thrive.
Allison R. Brown is a former trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division – Educational Opportunities Section. She is now president of Allison R. Brown Consulting, based in Washington, DC.