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Racism shows up in schools in a variety of ways. One is in the harsh disciplining of Black students compared to white students. Black students receive more detentions, more suspensions and more expulsions in comparison to white students, which can have chilling effects on students and their success in school.

Changing this reality will require educators to have tough conversations, a willingness to accept responsibility for their actions (including the results), and courage. Over-punishment is not about the behavior of students. It is about how educators react (more negatively) to Black students. Yet too often, when educators learn about the disproportionate punishment of Black students, they don’t believe this fact applies to them.

Teachers of all racial groups tend to punish Black students more harshly and more often than white students. Even “good” teachers engage in these practices.

Take, for example, a young, capable high school teacher I met not so long ago while preparing to facilitate some racial equity discussions at her school. I was very impressed with her. She had a good command of her subject matter and control of her classroom. Her students seemed engaged, and she seemed to have a good rapport with them. She was also a good person. She became a teacher to work with the most underserved students, and most of her students were Black.

She was determined to cultivate the minds and hearts of her students. She sometimes taught at great cost to herself, using her own funds to purchase supplies and often staying late. This high school teacher (and many of her colleagues) confirmed what I knew for sure, that teachers are good souls. They are among the very best of us.

“She was a good teacher in many respects, but she sent her most talkative students to the principal’s office.”

But, during one of our discussions, this young white teacher said she didn’t like how her school was approaching discipline. When I asked what she meant, she said that the school did not punish students harshly enough. She was unhappy about her principal’s efforts to soften the school’s “three strikes” policy, which expelled students with three suspensions, even for minor incidents.

She was a good teacher in many respects, but she sent her most talkative students to the principal’s office. She recommended suspensions for things like talking back. And she was not alone. The school had a culture of over-punishment and suspensions. Teachers harshly punished their mostly Black students for minor incidents like being slightly out of uniform and for various forms of talking (talking back, talking too loudly, talking out of turn).

This teacher and her colleagues had heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, but they didn’t believe they were participants in it.

Yet they were. In supporting harsh discipline for minor infractions, teachers were acting on unfounded deficit narratives about Black students’ behavioral habits. They were supporting a system of racism.

As educators, we must remember that often when students speak up, they are attempting to develop their voices. They are seeking explanations and trying to learn. Sometimes, they do so with attitude; sometimes they are rude. But these are normal behaviors for adolescents and teenagers, which present opportunities for teaching and learning.

Schools should be places where the primary focus is to teach students, not to punish them. They should be places where students, including Black students, have opportunities to grow. Schools should also be places where mistakes can be made — and used as learning opportunities.

What should schools and educators do to challenge harsh disciplining and other problems that contribute to systemic racism?

  • Engage in periodic “equity audits” (with data disaggregated by race) to understand the school’s strengths and weaknesses in serving Black students and other students of color.
  • Build spaces for ongoing frank and empathetic conversations among educators about what the equity data shows and what it means for supporting students.
  • Provide training opportunities for educators to understand the kinds of actions — and inactions — that support or undermine the growth, academic and otherwise, of Black students.
  • Build and encourage a learning culture within the school at all levels, among adults and students, where mistakes and failures are used as teaching moments as opposed to moments to shame, blame or over-punish.

Uprooting racism is difficult. But in schools, who better than teachers — the professional cultivators of students — to take up this challenge?

Arlene J. Ford is the founder of the Equity Inquiry Project Inc., which consults with educational institutions, nonprofits and for-profit organizations and their leaders to build capacity around equity and inclusion.

This story about the over-punishment of black students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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