A recent survey on students’ feelings about police officers in schools highlighted that public schools struggle with embracing Black identity. Public schools were struggling to keep Black students enrolled and engaged even before the pandemic.
The struggle speaks to the role public schools play in policing and profiling Black students.
Even as school buildings begin safely reopening schools, is there an intentional focus on ensuring that the mental and emotional safety of students is protected? Unfortunately for Black students, it’s not. They are returning to many public educational systems that target them through behavior, discipline, and attendance policies according to data from the school – to – prison pipeline. These policies police what Black students wear, how they speak, and even how they show up as their authentic selves.
Some educators have implemented and enforced punitive rules that dictate to Black children how they can show up in academic spaces. Teachers discouraged Black students from being their authentic selves in ways that they may not even realize. For example, while there are continued shootings of Black males, teachers are demanding Black boys remove hoodies in school. This could be a way to possibly “protect” them from stereotypes. But most often, it’s perceived as an expression of bias against Black boys because of the stereotypes perpetuated about them in the media.
Such biases exist even in remote, or virtual learning. For example, in Dekalb County, Georgia, Black students at a particular specialty school were still not allowed to wear natural hairstyles including braids, locs, or afros during virtual learning. This, however, is a pre-existing school policy that doesn’t allow Black students to be their authentic selves.
Additionally, schools with mixed populations have included in their policies banning Black students from class for logging in one minute late and placing students in the virtual waiting room if they don’t turn on their cameras. These are schools with Black and brown students in disenfranchised communities lacking functional equipment for one to one learning or who may have to share a laptop with siblings due to the lack of tech resources offered to families.
Too often, teachers don’t accept or barely tolerate Black students, which is part of a well-known—and persistent—system of oppression in public schools. However, there are possibilities for teachers and educational leaders to partner with Black students to truly embed equity and equality in the learning environment.
One way to bridge this gap is through increasing and empowering student engagement. EdLanta is currently promoting student leadership through our student coalition.
Students of color have been meeting with school board members, school administrators, teachers, parents, and educational advocates around equity and what’s needed for them to truly be their authentic selves in public schools.
In these conversations, we realize that all teachers don’t have the capacity to take on issues of diversity and race. Educators from school board leaders to classroom teachers play a critical role in dismantling barriers to learning, particularly for Black students. A good place to start is actions based on guidance from the Center For Black Educator Development:
- Ask teacher unions to support the adoption of a culturally inclusive curriculum in public schools
- Support diversity in teacher training programs
- Integrate service-learning projects into monthly classroom assessments for teachers and students
- Encourage the creation of student government associations that address equity issues and help improve school culture and diversity.
- Empower student civic engagement leadership opportunities and relevant classes that prepare students for the workforce
Teachers and educational leaders should also consider seeking professional development opportunities to help them create welcoming, antiracist classrooms.
This work doesn’t just rest on the shoulders of teachers and students!
There also needs to be national guidance to address the problems of equity and racial bias on a federal level. In order to stand true to its plan to “build back better,” the Biden administration must uphold the commitment to rebuild and restore the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The OCR must resume and strengthen its work to end the school-to-prison pipeline and protect the educational rights of all students regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ability. That requires updating and strengthening the OCR school discipline guidance package.
New guidance is needed in many areas, most urgently around compassionate, trauma-informed alternatives to exclusionary discipline during learning—infractions related to masks and social distancing, not turning on a camera, and attendance issues related to technology or lack of supervision.
As a community builder for Profound Gentlemen in Georgia, we have a need for supporting teacher diversity and training in Metro/inner city school districts. Many public schools struggle with this training for this type of approach to discipline, so teachers should seek resources from other organizations such as the Center for Black Educator Development, Profound Gentlemen, and Profound Ladies.
The OCR must also continue to collect and make public data on school climate and exclusionary discipline practices such as suspensions and expulsions. The discipline data, including instances from remote learning, must be documented and disaggregated by OCR-required categories.
We can’t continue to have the conversation of equitable educational outcomes for Black students without addressing the racial disparities in student discipline.
Removing policies that inhibit student expression will help with creating classrooms that are welcoming and culturally inclusive.
Jason has worked in education for over 15 years as a teacher, blogger and community advocate. He speaks and writes primarily about the need to improve education for Black boys, particularly increasing the number of Black male educators in schools. In addition to blogging here at EdLanta, Jason is also a featured writer at Education Post.