by Allison R. Brown
He was 14 years old when the school resource officer hit him so hard in the face, he knocked his front tooth out. This happened at school. It is unclear what the student’s transgression, or supposed transgression, was. I posit that it does not matter.
When children go to school, they should find love, compassion, and belief in their abilities so that their brains and bodies can be nurtured as receptacles of knowledge and they can engage with, and lead, their own educational process. Schools and educators should welcome students and thrill at the experiences, heritage, and cultures they all bring.
There are schools like that in the country, employing strategies to respect and guide the journey to leadership for society’s next greats – building trust, correcting students’ missteps, celebrating their genius, loving all of who they are and all of who they will be. Strategies that foster creative learning, in the young people and in the educators too.
Too often, there are very different strategies unleashed on predominantly Black and Brown students, particularly those in low-income households and communities. They are heavily controlled and policed in school, starved of opportunities to learn to think and question critically, disrespected and abused. In 2014, a Black girl in the first grade was berated and punished by her white teacher for not knowing the answer to a math problem. In 2016, a 17yo Black boy was brutally assaulted and arrested by a school resource officer for being in the hallway without a pass as he was walking to use the bathroom. In 2015, a 16yo Black girl was ripped from her desk, thrown across the floor, and violently arrested by a school resource officer for not putting her cell phone away at the teacher’s request. Just recently, two Black girls, sisters, were repeatedly sent to detention for wearing their hair in braids.
The consequences meted out in each of these instances are so harsh, so punitive, and so far removed from any basis in evidence or common sense that one could not be faulted for concluding that the education system has been constructed in such a way as to suppress and oppress Black and Brown identity. These consequences are not consequences that white children must suffer, even when they engage in precisely the same behavior and worse.
The stories I shared above are not anomalies. In fact, Black students are three times as likely as whites to be suspended out of school. In pre-school, Black students are 3.6 times as likely as whites to be suspended out of school one or more times. Black students in pre-school to 12th grade are 2.3 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement or arrested in school than white students. Students who are kicked out of school in this way are more likely to be retained in school, drop out of school, and interact with the criminal justice system. Yet these disparities are far less in objective categories of offense, such as carrying a loaded weapon to school, possession of drugs with intent to distribute, or fighting with injury. Where we see significant racial disparities are in more subjective categories of offense – disrespect, insubordination, willful defiance – categories that require some judgment on the part of the discipline decider in the moment, the person who will determine whether such behavior rises to the level of an infraction and what sort of punishment and/or recourse ought to be rendered. Categories that allow for, and welcome, the entry of implicit and explicit biases and structural racism to inform and define the decisionmaking process.
No wonder there is a ‘trust gap’ in school. Black and Latino students are far less likely to trust that they are being treated fairly in school. Even students who perform well academically perceive bias in their teachers and also report higher incidents of discipline and lower graduation rates. In addition, Black parents have reported an all-time high level of frustration with the quality of public schools…all public schools. Black parents engage at the same levels as white parents in their children’s school and yet are more dissatisfied with the school their child attends than white parents (47% as compared to 64% ‘very satisfied’ for white parents). This dissatisfaction runs the socioeconomic gamut from college-educated, high-income Black parents to low-income and poor Black parents.
Schools need students, parents and families, and educators to act as collaborators to nurture young people into their greatness. Justice means that all children have access to schools that love who they are and respect the families and ancestors whose paths the children are evolving.
Schools need restorative practices, culturally relevant curricula, high expectations, mindsets of abundance and growth for educators and students alike, and of course music and the arts to ensure learning environments that respect and honor young people for who they are and that love them into who they can and should be.
Allison R. Brown is the Executive Director of the Communities for Just Schools Fund, in Washington, D.C., and has worked as a civil rights attorney to combat the school-to-prison pipeline and disparities in school discipline.
 School has since changed its policy after receiving numerous complaints from the girls themselves, their mother, and outraged community members and a national audience.