As a parent of two African American boys, I am concerned as we begin to navigate our way back into the school building. I am worried that this new era in education could make my children and other BIPOC children vulnerable to disproportionate school discipline, especially exclusionary discipline. Schools are under increased pressure to keep children and teachers safe, and removing a face mask or breathing on someone could spread sickness; this undoubtedly makes for a more tense learning environment. With new rules in place, it concerns me to think that BIPOC may bear the brunt of these new consequences and be subject to exclusionary discipline practices at higher rates than other students.
The Impact of Exclusionary Discipline on BIPOC Students
Even before the pandemic, children of color were disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. The gap has likely widened during the COVID era with many more students dealing with trauma or a crisis at home. Groups such as Black and Latino families have been disproportionately impacted by economic hardships and physical and mental health challenges. These hardships, combined with a year-long hiatus from the routine of an in-person school day could mean an increase in classroom misbehavior. The excessive rate of suspensions that BIPOC children experience is a critical factor in pushing them out of school and into the criminal justice system.
The way adults perceive student behavior is also directly connected to the amount of exclusionary discipline BIPOC students endure. For Black students pre-pandemic, the most common reason for out-of-school suspensions was for subjective behavioral infractions such as disrespect, insubordination, or causing a disruption. These kinds of violations are primarily dependent on how educators and administrators interpret student behavior. Now, with new COVID-era safety rules in place, school officials are in an even more precarious position of trying to determine the intent behind a student’s behavior before making disciplinary decisions. Additionally, these decisions are subject to implicit bias and have proved to be a critical factor in perpetuating school discipline disparities.
The school discipline dilemma’s crux is that Black students are particularly prone to implicit and explicit bias and therefore more likely to be excluded from classrooms due to perceived misbehavior. As a parent and an education advocate, I’m concerned that as students and teachers return to a school environment highly charged with stress and trauma, BIPOC students who act out will be viewed as “disruptive” or “defiant,” and less in need of social and emotional support than their white counterparts. It is time that school officials pay more attention to how the tentacles of racism may shape the next generation of school discipline.
The Problem with Exclusionary Discipline Practices
Behavioral infractions that result in out-of-school suspensions are often the first stop along the school-to-prison pipeline, the disproportionate tendency of minors and young adults navigating a threatening system to become incarcerated due to exclusionary discipline practices. Most students want to do well in school, and exclusionary discipline has a devastating impact on students’ short- and long-term academic outcomes. The immediate effect of out-of-school suspensions is the loss of instructional time, a precursor to these long-term consequences. Recent research revealed that American K-12 students missed nearly 11 million instructional days in a single academic year due to out-of-school suspension. The loss of instruction can cause a student to fall behind academically; if that student is already behind, poor academic performance could result. Feelings of being undervalued, unwelcomed, and misunderstood can exacerbate disconnection from school and perhaps even increase the probability that a student will leave school without graduating. Students who experience multiple suspensions are also more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system. Considering that most BIPOC students are suspended for subjective, non-violent behavioral infractions, this is an unnecessary consequence. It is time that school officials pay more attention to how the tentacles of racism may shape the next generation of school discipline.
What Districts, Schools, and Teachers can do
As schools begin reopening, educators will need to balance the enforcement of safety precautions with disciplinary practices that are responsive to the social, emotional, and physical needs of students without perpetuating racial disparities in exclusionary discipline. Indeed, a proactive approach to school discipline is needed. Prioritizing relationships with students and families will be critical in making sure students get the support they need. Students need to feel like the adults at their school care about them as people, not just about their academic performance. Fostering positive relationships with students and their families helps to build school connectedness and makes students feel safe. It is also important that school officials center the voice of students. None of the adults in schools know what it is like to be a student during this time. We need our students to share their opinions of what’s working for them and what’s not. We need to know what they think the problems are and what their needs are; only they can tell us from their perspective.
Supporting teacher and student mental health is also crucial at this time. Teachers are reporting levels of stress comparable to that of nurses and physicians, and because teachers spend so much time with students, how they cope with stress influences how students will cope with stress now and in the future. School districts can support principals by making sure they have school mental health teams consisting of school counselors, social workers, behavior specialists, parent liaisons, nurses, doctors, and others who can coordinate efforts and respond appropriately to students and teachers’ needs. Ensuring teachers have the mental health supports they need will improve their mental and physical health and make them less likely to burn out and leave the field, providing our students with the stability and consistency they will need during this time. Strengthening relationships, emphasizing social and emotional learning, incorporating mindfulness, and providing as much predictability as possible will bolster teacher and students’ mental wellness. Additionally, our state and local education agencies need to examine federal, state, and local discipline policies, assess their impact on historically marginalized students, and make the necessary changes to eliminate disproportionate discipline outcomes.
Without taking steps to protect BIPOC students from excessive exclusionary discipline, schools risk falling back into old patterns that could perpetuate or even exacerbate school discipline problems during the year ahead. However, with intention, clarity of purpose, and a fierce determination to remove barriers and ensure that all students have access to the resources they need when they need them, this could be an opportunity for schools to escalate equity and improve the academic success of historically marginalized students.