By Kacy Martin
Since the violent altercation between a white officer and black female student in South Carolina last month, there has been much conversation about discipline and the role of police in America’s public schools. While not a new debate, questions about the disproportionate use of physical force and exclusionary discipline policies against black students in urban schools have risen to the forefront of the consciousness of educators and researchers. While there is significant disagreement about what the correct course of action would have been in the incident in South Carolina, there is little question that use of force against the student was wildly disproportionate to her disruptive behavior.
Nationwide, about half of all students who are suspended or expelled from school are African American, even though black students make up just under a quarter of the country’s public school population. Shaun R. Harper, associate professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and the executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, argues that, “This is at least partly attributed to people having these racist assumptions about black kids. We argue that too little happens in schools of education to raise consciousness about that.”
One Los Angeles educator reflected that his decision to quickly resort to exclusionary discipline might often be a result of a misinterpretation of the teenager’s emotional problems and inability to express himself for aggressive anger—possibly because the student was black and male. These decisions to use expulsion and suspension as the first line of defense against chaos in the classroom have a significant impact on the school to prison pipeline. In addition to missing out on in-school learning time, students who are expelled or suspended are more likely to have later contact with the juvenile justice system than similar students who are not removed from school.
Militarization of Black Schools
Since the 1990s, there has been as sharp increase in police presence in schools, which is often attributed to the Columbine shootings and widespread fear of school violence. While newsworthy school shootings often occur in predominantly white schools, however, the presence of police is most prevalent in schools with a majority of black students. The presence of officers in schools, along with the rise of zero tolerance policies, reinforce an expectation of compliance on the part of black students, rather than mutual respect between members of the school community.
Misbehavior and disruption is now often met with responses more appropriate for violent criminals. Earlier this year, a school district in Kentucky was sued over an officer handcuffing two children who were 8 and 9 years old. While the presence of police officers presumably increases the security within a school, the line between safety and militarization is often blurred. Many officers receive no explicit training about how to effectively work in a school and resort to their traditional police training to respond to issues of student misconduct.
Alternative Approaches to School Discipline
A growing number of alternatives to police presence and knee-jerk exclusionary policies are being implemented in urban districts around the country. Programs that seek to move school discipline away from approaches centered on punishment and law enforcement and toward a culture of dialogue and problem-solving seek to reframe the paradigm of adults versus students in the school environment. In a speech last year, former US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, identified exclusionary discipline policies as ineffective and disproportionately disadvantageous to black students. Since then, several large districts have responded with programs that facilitate restorative justice among school community members.
The Oakland Unified School District is at the forefront of this new approach to school misconduct and discipline. Rather than suspending or expelling students who get into fights or act out, restorative justice seeks to resolve conflicts and build school community through talking and group dialogue. Modeling problem-solving processes that students can use in conflicts in other areas of their lives, these schools train teachers, parents, and students to engage in structured conversations, followed by rational consequences after disruptive behavior. District-wide, Oakland reports the approach is working. The percentage of students suspended at schools that have fully adopted the program has dropped by half, from 34 percent in 2011-12 to just 14 percent in the following two years. Several other urban districts, including Chicago, Minneapolis, and Denver, are trying similar versions approach.
The problem of excessively militaristic responses to student misbehavior in predominantly black schools deserves ongoing critical examination. Handling discipline and disruption is an inevitable, and often essential part of creating a school community. Demonstrating productive methods of handling conflict can provide opportunities to teach students to deal with confrontation, rather than reinforcing the racial injustice perpetuated by zero-tolerance policies.
Contact Kacy: Kmartin@msu.edu