Damian Dovarganes / AP

Devaluation of black lives starts in classrooms

Black students are disproportionately subjected to suspension and arrest

May 8, 2015 2:00AM ET

In New York City, where youth of color live under the shadow of stop-and-frisk policing and hundreds of children are jailed each year, school authorities recently promised to limit the use of metal handcuffs on students younger than 12 years old — unless absolutely necessary. Yes, that’s considered progress.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded last year, the public spotlight has focused on violence against black youth in the streets. But the devaluation of black life often begins in the classroom — not at the hands of riot police, but through more subtle forms of force.

Black students are disproportionately subjected to disciplinary measures, ranging from suspension and expulsion to physical confinement or restraint — and sometimes arrest. Like zero-tolerance law enforcement, social control is the goal, though paradoxically, those disproportionately targeted for restraint typically come from the most disempowered communities.

Following disturbing news reports of children being regularly arrested and restrained for behavioral problems, in April New York City introduced regulations on the use of restraints and measures to curb overreliance on suspensions. The guidelines, backed with reforms to increase oversight and accountability, follow measures taken by other states to make school safety policies more transparent and humane. Now, police officers who patrol city schools will report monthly on the use of restraints to the mayor’s office and “will not restrain students under 12 with metal handcuffs in schools, except in situations where other methods of restraint have failed.”

But why are such practices so ingrained in our schools’ culture, anyway? The routinized use of restraint in itself represents an underlying failure of the education system. In many cases, public schools are as racially segregated today as they were during the Jim Crow era. The divides are exacerbated by neighborhood segregation, and sometimes, by the spread of minimally regulated charter schools in communities of color, which typically face less oversight on disciplinary practices. Schools’ authoritarian tactics are especially worrying against this backdrop of systemic bias.

Amid metal detectors and security patrols, kids in the school-to-prison pipeline are prepped not for college but for the criminal justice system. Nationwide, according to federal data, black children are suspended at triple the rate (PDF) of their white peers. Similar racial disproportionality plays out in the use of restraints on students with disabilities and in rates of school-related arrest.

Girls sometimes have it even tougher: New data from New York City schools show how gender disparities also bleed into racial inequality. The number of school discipline cases involving black boys is six times higher than those involving white boys. But those involving black girls — whose treatment tends to receive less public attention — total more than 10 times the number of cases for white girls.

When attending school can be literally painful, it’s no surprise that patterns in harsh treatment parallel racial and economic gaps in academic performance and graduation rates.

Youth facing hardships need an outlet to speak out, but their schools promote silence and conformity, backed by punitive force.

The conversation on discipline is leading to meaningful reforms in cities like New York. But schools and communities now face the challenge of building a truly safe and supportive learning environment that can break broader cycles of violence.

Fairer disciplinary programs ought to help shape children’s understanding of their role in their communities.

Schools should actively connect patterns of aggression to the systemic power imbalances weighing on poor children of color, who are exposed daily to neighborhood violence that may follow them to school. Teachers should be aware of how violence affects children outside the classroom. Only then can they start a conversation with students about personal and social responsibility, seeding a consciousness that their relationship to school should be one of mutual respect. A kid isn’t likely to grasp that insight with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Often, behavior that teachers dismiss as insubordinate may speak to deeper social crises at home, or simply to the staff’s ingrained prejudice. For girls of color especially, social instability and sexual trauma can intersect with educational barriers, but problems often go ignored until an outburst or interpersonal conflict breaks out in the hall. Youth facing these hardships need an outlet to speak out, but their schools promote silence and conformity, backed by punitive force. As one girl explained in a report on black girls and school discipline by Columbia Law School, “If you try ... to go in there, try to sit there, one on one, they can automatically think you’re there to waste time and not to go to class. It’s like they’re shutting down on us.”

New York City’s effort to limit violent interventions marks a first step toward reforming school discipline. The city must expand its emerging network of restorative discipline programs, which are currently being piloted at a handful of schools, with notable results so far in conflict resolution. These programs provide structured discussion spaces that turn a student’s disciplinary issue into an exploration of how she might balance self-control and self-expression when dealing with peers and authority.

Discipline is only useful insofar as it teaches people that their behavior makes a difference, positively or negatively. If students feel as if school is designed to punish them for being themselves, discipline just becomes subjugation; if they feel empowered to make their communities fairer and more peaceful, youth can teach us more than we ever imagined. And there’s no more teachable moment than now. With people in the streets struggling to show that black lives matter, schools can’t afford to further devalue the black lives they’re charged with educating.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, an associate editor at CultureStrike and a blogger at The Nation. She is a co-producer of “Asia Pacific Forum” on Pacifica’s WBAI and Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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