A mock jail is set up by Rainier Beach High School students to protest the proposed building of the King County Youth and Family Justice Center. File photo from 2016. Credit: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut
In Seattle Public Schools, African-American middle school students are three-and-a-half times as likely to be disciplined as other students. Although black children make up roughly 20 percent of the overall student body, they account for over 40 percent of all suspensions and expulsions in the district, two-thirds of them male. The discipline gap represents the underbelly of the achievement gap since students can’t do the work if they aren’t in school.
This is nothing new — in the early 1980s the district assigned a committee to examine why so many black students were being suspended and expelled. That means, at the minimum, we are now well into a third generation of black students who have experienced these adverse conditions. In 2013, the U.S.Department of Education opened a federal investigation of these disproportionate disciplinary practices.
One of the keys to this problem lies in the differences between what is known as “objective” vs “subjective” discipline. Objective discipline, which covers offenses such as fighting, assault or bringing drugs or weapons to school, generally involves little nuance or room for interpretation. Subjective discipline, on the other hand, includes things like disruptive conduct, disrespect or rule breaking, which may or may not result in student removal from the classroom, depending on the teacher. In Seattle, subjective-related reasons were given for more than 50 percent of all suspensions or expulsions handed out to African-American students.
Am I saying there are no subjective instances that need to be dealt with to maintain classroom order? Of course not — but, when the subjective makes up more than half the explanations for sending these students home, questions need asking.
Race, gender and cultural distance in the classroom seem to be the most obvious factors at work. Nearly 90 percent of teachers in Washington are white, and over 70 percent of them are women. The cultural norms of communication and behavior among these educators can be in stark contrast to the students who populate classrooms in many schools. While writing my dissertation at the University of Washington about strategies to reduce classroom discipline among African-American students, three themes emerged — relevant curriculum, engaging instructional methods, and number one by far, personal relationships. The question, and professional problem, is, what exactly is preventing these teachers from forming real, lasting connections with the students they are steadily removing from their classrooms?
The idea of absent relationships and student success was highlighted again for me last school year when I delivered a keynote at Seattle Schools’ Leadership and Learning Day, a professional development gathering attended by every principal from every school in the city. Afterward, I was approached by one leader who, moved by the discussion of relationships, shared the response to a specific question on a student survey he’d recently conducted in his building. “If I am absent,” the questionnaire read, “will there be an adult at school who will miss me?” Eighty percent of black students answered “no.”
A couple of years ago, after giving a presentation about this topic to a group of inmates at the Monroe Correctional Complex, I was approached by a dozen or so inmates from the Black Prisoners Caucus. They shared stories of how these seemingly minor types of subjective disciplinary violations as kids in school marked the beginning of a road that started with educational disenfranchisement and ended in lockdown. A few even mentioned witnessing similar situations in the military. With this type of disproportionality in play around the country, which has included handcuffing and body-slamming students, what we are really talking about is the criminalizing of non-criminal behavior.
These concepts are frequently difficult for many locals to digest, given the self-congratulatory image of racial progressivism in Seattle. But they do not exist in a vacuum. After more than 20 years of observing and training teachers, one thing I have heard countless times and have had to eventually shut down is the claim, “I don’t see color.” First, this statement is naïve at best, and disingenuous at worst.
In America today, is race not just as recognized — if not more — than gender, height, age, clothing choices or any other physical feature? Best believe that kids are aware of it. Second, such a stance comes from a completely privileged position, as racial recognition has historically often been a survival tool for people of color.
In education, attacks on the academic self-esteem of African-American students literally begin when they walk in the door; research indicates black kids are also being disproportionately suspended and expelled from preschool. Kids who get disciplined consistently and end up disenfranchised do not feel good about themselves as students/learners. These experiences may manifest in the form of what is known as “cool pose,” where African-American males remain emotionally detached and aloof as a survival mechanism to cope with the trauma that can come with being black in America. This behavior is often misread by teachers, principals and police officers as an “attitude of defiance,” instead of a way for these youth to “maintain a sense of integrity and suppress rage at being blocked from the usual routes to esteem and success.”
Being a K-12 teacher is no joke, and the need for more teachers of color is real. While this is an important point, a) those who have traumatic relationships with education would seem less likely to choose it as a profession, and b) simply being a person of color in no way automatically makes one an effective teacher for students of color. In fact, the wolf in sheep’s clothing dynamic of teachers who look like them handing out the same old referral slips can be even more disheartening to already vulnerable students. At the same time, white teachers need not feel helpless.
I had a colleague at Zion Prep, let’s call her “Sister T,” who was a white woman born and raised in Montana. She was a successful middle school teacher at Zion because first, she made it clear she was not intimidated. But in addition, Sister T went out of her way to establish meaningful relationships, employed culturally responsive and engaging instructional methods in the delivery of relevant curriculum, and made sure her students knew she was invested and expected success.
Traditionally, blame for the academic failure of children of color has been placed squarely, and almost exclusively, on the shoulders of the students and their families. Often enough, teachers, regardless of how liberal or open minded they claim to be, immediately take a defensive stance and flatly refuse to even consider that their own biases could be contributing to the wave of disproportionate discipline.
Teachers are the folks who, if truly concerned and invested in educational equity, need a serious amount of critical introspection. Particularly when so many of their classrooms serve as an entry point for the school-to-prison pipeline.