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How Black Families Can Fight for Fair Discipline in School

Restorative justice is a growing alternative to the zero-tolerance policies and educator bias that disproportionately hurt students of color.

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This essay originally appeared at GreatSchools.org

Each school year, about 3 million students get suspended or expelled from school. But there are huge disparities in who those students are. According to a study published in American Psychologist JournalBlack and Hispanic students are more likely to be punished than students from other groups in school. For example, the Indiana Department of Education data shows, “Black students in Indiana are nearly four times as likely to get an out-of-school suspension than their white peers, and twice as likely to receive an in-school suspension…”

While those numbers should be unsettling for every parent, they’re especially worrisome to Black and Hispanic families – who see that pattern of disproportionate discipline repeated in state after state – and have to live with the too-common view that their kids are just more disruptive than other kids.

Bad behavior happens with all groups of students, of course. And schools need to take measures to protect students and staff or preserve order in the classroom. (According to the U.S. Dept. of Education School Discipline Laws and Regulations, there are five general types of disciplinary actions at the 133,090 U.S. public schools: in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, law enforcement referrals, school-related arrests; and expulsion). But when those measures are shaped by the teacher or administrator’s bias, an unclear or unfair disciplinary code, or the reluctance of schools to try to resolve the underlying conflicts that started a problem, it’s the Black and Hispanic students who too often pay the heaviest price.

There are ways, however, that parents of color can be on guard against excessive discipline and see to it that when their kids misbehave, the response is no different than it would be for a white child. Here are three important factors to consider and five things to do to help your child navigate disciplinary issues.

3 discipline issues to consider

1. Zero-tolerance discipline policies can be damaging

The imposition of zero-tolerance discipline policies in many schools, which include strict mandates for punishment and no consideration of any underlying circumstances of the offense or offender, has affected all students, especially Black and Hispanic students. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), zero-tolerance school policies continue to face criticism for inflexibility. Nevertheless, a zero-tolerance policy still exists in 87 percent of all public schools and is most often used in cases involving drugs, alcohol, firearms, and violent behavior.

But stiff mandated punishments don’t always fit the crime. Two years ago at Norwood High School outside Boston, 15-year-old Marcus Leitch, who had no previous disciplinary issues, garnered local news attention when he was suspended for 90 days after a fight with a student he said bullied him. The school ultimately reduced the punishment to less than a month – but only after his mother enlisted the help of a local NAACP branch to appeal the suspension.

The school’s discipline policy hasn’t changed because the punishment was consistent with their NHS student/parent handbook. It states, “Administration reserves the right to increase the length of a suspension to any number of days up to and including ten (10) for a short-term suspension and ninety (90) for a long-term suspension. This would be done in situations that are considered to be severe or for repeated disciplinary transgressions and/or in situations where corrective measures have not been heeded by the student.”

Even though the suspension was reduced, Marcus still struggled at home, not understanding the severe punishment for what he called “self-defense.” “I don’t know what to do for him,” said his mother, Kerry Sullivan. “He’s not the same child, and it infuriates me.”

2. Educator bias can mean more severe discipline

Bias on the part of teachers and administrators can be a real roadblock to fair discipline for Black and Hispanic students. In 2019, an extensive study by two Princeton University professors found evidence of a racial disparity in school discipline, noting that while bias was not always present, it certainly was there sometimes. Interestingly, they suggested that the association between racial bias and disciplinary disparities was strongest in counties with a larger white population. In addition, the absence of positive portrayals of African-Americans in the media, they found, could lead to greater community bias and make teachers quicker to discipline Black students. “It is possible,” they wrote, “that living in a region in which Black students are disciplined to a greater extent than white students exacerbates and/or reinforces the explicit racial biases of the community.”

3. Restorative justice promises fairer discipline in schools

The presence of bias and the inflexibility of zero-tolerance policies highlights the need for greater nuance in dealing with students of color.

Disciplinary initiatives like restorative justice are a popular alternative since they aim to build a healthy classroom community to deter volatile situations. These programs enable offenders to own their actions, mediate their problems, and propose solutions within a school community or classroom. It is intended as a first disciplinary response, before harsher penalties later, if needed.

Restorative Justice programs have been supported by 21 states (and the District of Columbia) since 2011. According to the Center for Poverty and Inequality, “Studies indicate that school-based restorative justice improves school climate and connectedness, promotes student health and well-being, lowers discipline rates, and reduces racial disparities in school discipline.” It also has the big added benefit of keeping students learning in school instead of out on the streets.

Shavonne Gibson, former assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for the Washington, DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education, has praised the practice in District schools. She believes this alternative is valuable, as opposed to a zero-tolerance policy, since the program holds students accountable without out-of-school suspensions. “If we continue to exclude students from their learning environment due to discipline, we continue to put the students often who need us most, further and further behind.”

But there has been some criticism of this relatively new discipline practice. Dr. Mikhail Lyubansky, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor, published a Psychology Today article describing “Nine Criticisms of School Restorative Justice.” For example, one practice involves students meeting in a classroom circle to hash it out. This, Dr. Lyubansky writes, “places an unfair expectation on victims/survivors to forgive those who harmed them.” Furthermore, he argues, the goal of restorative justice should not be contingent on forgiveness, and because the program’s goals are often framed around “mutual understanding,” there will inevitably be premature reconciliations with “unmet needs” for all parties involved.

So caught between zero-tolerance policies, implicit and explicit bias in schools and communities, and the uncertainties of a new way of discipline, what’s a parent to do?

5 ways parents can navigate discipline issues

  1. Ask for the school discipline policy when your child first enrolls. Know before trouble arises what the school’s discipline code is, and ask for a printed copy of it. (New York City, for instance, has an extensive Discipline Code available to any parent). Find out if your child’s school has zero-tolerance discipline policies. And remember that in a handful of states, corporal punishment can still be used on younger children – and is used most often in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Texas. So be sure to ask about school discipline up front.
  2. Find out if the punishment fits the misconduct. Ask the school for a detailed account of your child’s alleged misconduct and why the specific consequence was enforced. Then ask about the history of similar misconduct at the school and how those incidents were handled. This should help you understand if the discipline is fair or misplaced.
  3. Find out if the school has a restorative justice program. Since fewer than 25 states’ legislation supports restorative justice programs, there’s a chance your child’s school does not. Be sure to call and find out. If they do, ask about the specific practices of the program and look for online information about it. Lastly, talk with your child about the program, and ask if the experience with restorative justice is working. To find out about establishing such a program in your school, go to George Lucas Educational Foundation’s website to find 8 primary steps. The main goal is to engage the school community: “Seek school broad support and generate interest and commitment through education and trust building.”
  4. Push for your child’s school to hire Black and Hispanic teachers. Do not hesitate to inquire about the diversity amongst the school’s faculty.

    Studies have found that when both the student and teacher are Black, there are fewer suspensions and expulsions. Moreover, research has also found that Black students’ academic and behavioral success typically improves when they’re represented amongst faculty, especially when Black students have Black teachers.
  5. Don’t be afraid of asking for help beyond the school. Sometimes, despite a school’s repeated denials, bias is clearly involved in deciding on discipline. If you haven’t resolved the problem at the school to your satisfaction, you may have to reach out to someone at the district level, or even contact the NAACP, as Kerry Sullivan did in Massachusetts, the ACLU, or another group that can help you redress unfair punishment.

Every disciplinary scenario is not the same. So take your child’s case step-by-step. Listen to your child’s account of the incident that caused the problem and write it down (what happened, who was involved, how it started, and the date and time). Then start by talking with the teacher or school official who was first involved with the incident. If you’re not satisfied, document that exchange too, and proceed to the next higher level – which could be a department head, dean, assistant principal, or principal – before making an appeal at the district level. While it’s always best for parents to know the rules of the school beforehand, remember that none of those rules ever say that Black and Hispanic students should be treated worse than everyone else.

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