“Teachers treat kids differently when they do the same thing. Often with a white kid, they just laugh it off as no big deal, while a kid of color faces consequences.”
“As a white girl, no one gets suspicious of anything I do. Adults always assume I’m doing the right thing,”
“Often white parents know the system really well and advocate and ‘complain’ their kids out of situations.”
Students shared these reflections in my school’s racial justice youth group. Hearing them was devastating. As a teacher, I strive to treat all of my students fairly and equitably, as I hope all educators around the country strive to do. But while we may proclaim equity for all, the reality is that too many of our schools treat students very differently, national data reveal. We are not where we need to be as a nation that claims to value justice and equity for all students.
The consequences of harsh and punitive systems with deeply embedded inequities are catastrophic: Students who have been suspended even once are three times more likely than their peers to be incarcerated later. And black students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended than white students, often for the same behavior that goes unpunished in classmates. There are also alarming disparities for boys, students with disabilities and English language learners.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance to help schools improve disciplinary practices and policies and to promote positive school cultures. I am disheartened that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is considering rescinding this guidance, which should be at the heart of our work as educators.
Related: What can Betsy DeVos really do?
At my racially and socioeconomically diverse school in Minneapolis, I have students who come to school with stress, anxiety and hardships that are difficult for me even to imagine. And yet, they work hard and persevere, coming to school for an education that they hope will open doors.
When our students struggle with making the best choices — often due to external traumas and stresses — our reactions far too often involve quickly removing them from the classroom, and consequentially denying access to the education that is their right. Just as important, we also miss opportunities to address the root causes of their actions and to empower them with productive coping and mediation strategies.
Harsh disciplinary practices can also send the message that students — particularly students of color — aren’t welcome in the classroom. This stigma reinforces pre-existing stereotypes about black and Latino students. As another of my students observed, when schools jump to suspension for only some students, “all you get is a loss of motivation knowing you’re unwanted.”
Committed educators across the country, including many at my school, have used the Education Department’s guidance to develop better ways to respond. My school, for instance, has instituted a meditation room where students can take a break if they are feeling anxious or overwhelmed, and our team continues to work on more restorative solutions.
For example, a student came by my classroom recently and told me that her teacher had agreed to let her take a break so she could get her emotions under control. She sat in my room quietly for a few minutes and then returned to class ready to focus and participate. Such a simple approach prevented an emotional situation from escalating and got the student back on track quickly.
In Educators for Excellence’s “Voices from the Classroom: A Survey of America’s Educators,” a national survey of our country’s public school educators, teachers said they want more training to address school violence and improve student behavior using non-punitive strategies.
Far more teachers support positive behavior reinforcement (74 percent) and restorative practices (64 percent) than exclusionary measures, such as out-of-school suspensions (39 percent) or expulsions (39 percent).
But this is not work that can be done in isolation, with a few teachers or at a few schools. Creating safe learning environments for all students will take collective action. The 2014 federal guidance started that process and helped us hold ourselves accountable to equitable practices, but we have a long road ahead in ensuring that we replace the harsh, punitive practices that continue to exacerbate racial disparities.
Despite what seem like polarized times, there are fundamental American and human values that bind us all. Primary among these are caring for, nurturing, loving and supporting all of our children in positive and safe environments.
I hope Secretary DeVos embraces those as her guiding principles too, and the Department of Education renews its commitment to this important guidance.
This story on school disciplinary practices was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.
Cristina Benz is a high school art teacher in Minneapolis and a member of Educators for Excellence’s teacher advisory group.