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school discipline reform
Dennis’ Barber Shop in New Orleans. Credit: Tabitha Bethune

“I see my child about to die every day.”

That’s what one despondent mother told me when she phoned looking for help for her teenage boy; all she wanted was for her son to get out of the drug game.

Tattoos, the smoke-blackened lips and sagging pants were the in-the-face reality experienced by this mother. “He’s wearing the uniform of someone going to die,” she told me.

A haircut, pulling up of pants and hiding tattoos can give a parent hope. Providing a young man with a mentor who doesn’t remind him of the streets can provide even more.

By not acknowledging the reality that parents see, we deny them of their truth, experiences and raw emotions stemming from the visible clues to a fate they’ve seen before.

Death has a uniform.

Mothers especially are desperate for any visible sign of change.

But the source of the pain is much farther upstream than hair and tattoos present to parents. We must acknowledge what parents see, but responsible solutions must attend to what parents don’t see.

Education reform has a habit of shaming the things directly in parents’ faces as a way to justify “solutions” for problems. Horrible teachers, pitiful students and bad parents are readily blamed and shamed.

As a black person, I understand how loving families and community members, who have a son or daughter on the verge, develop the willingness to put up a child (and black teachers) for shaming. Our hair is too nappy, skin too dark and lips and noses are too big to be beautiful (white). So we straighten, lighten and cut our way to acceptability. Black folk have adjusted to being shamed into submission.

Accepting shame as a strategy for “progress” has made it hard for parents to differentiate whether outward appearances are either symptoms or causes of a seemingly inescapable world of strife, gunshots, and addiction. Tattoos, dreadlocks, rap music, sagging pants and smoke-blackened lips blare in an echo chamber of self-loathing.

“A haircut didn’t save Trayvon Martin.”

Consequently, we beg for our children to respect (ingratiate themselves to) police, sit quietly in school, put on bow ties and cut off locks, cornrows and braids. Similarly, we would have our black teachers fired or vilified.

We rationalize that a shamed child who has submitted to an acceptable role is better than a dead child.

Who can argue with those options?

A haircut didn’t save Trayvon Martin. I can easily argue that suspension policies and stand your ground rules removed his right to live in his blackness.

Cutting hair, making students walk on white lines or teaching them how to be a man are no solutions for core problems of gun accessibility, poverty, segregated housing, and under-resourced schools.

Related: Why more black male teachers should be feminists

In education, the popularity of boot camps, soft-skills training, expulsion and suspension are signs that educators are waving the white flag to more significant barriers to students’ academic success.

Choice advocates clutch onto breaking up attendance zones as an end goal instead of building quality schools in each neighborhood just as parents hold on to bootstrapping because educators have labeled the strongest predictors of academic success as “out of our control.”

The instruction a student received the prior year, family income and zip code (residential segregation) are still some of the biggest problems searching for a boot camp.

Prior academic achievement has always had more influence than psychological variables on whether one persists in school or colleges. In one study, “prior academic achievement measures and psychological variables in combination accounted for 17 percent of the variance in students’ university GPA scores. The sole contribution of psychological variables was 4 percent.”

It’s not complicated but it’s hard. We need to maximize conditions for quality teaching, retain effective teachers, implement rigorous curricula and make sure enough human power is in the building.

Reforms laid in frames that cast negative views of black children aren’t really reforms. They are makeovers of the same ugly stereotypes that justify not giving schools and students what they need. They also keep those who believe in stereotypes in business.

Steve Perry’s controversial tweet

Social media erupted last week when Steve  Perry of the National Mentoring Camp for Young Men’s tweeted: “I witnessed 200 boys VOLUNTARILY cut dreads, braids & unkept frosh bc ‪@IAmSteveHarvey ‪@USArmy connected aesthetics to success. Powerful.”

The reason why Steve Perry’s affection of the hair offing is so divisive is that people urgently want change. But real changes require much more than Steve Perry seemingly has to offer.

Steve Perry’s tweet was troubling.

It speaks directly to the pathologizing of blackness that also comes through in school policies that seek to make low-income folk middle class without giving them middle class money. There is no empirical evidence that hair is related to success of any kind let alone academic.

There’s no shortage of criticism of Steve Perry.

More importantly, there’s also no shortage of desperation.

We need to address upstream issues that are clouded by the chaos and shame black parents and students face everyday.

Arguing with those who provide short-term relief is as useful as cutting hair.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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