Criminalizing our kids: How biased language reduces students to impossibility

Offender. Repeat offender. Recidivist. Perpetrator. Aggressor. Instigator. These terms, heard in courtrooms across the country everyday, should seem out of place in the halls of a school. Yet they have become all too familiar within the walls of our institutes of learning, these venues where we are supposed to be fostering a lifelong love of learning, igniting the fire of knowledge within the minds of critical thinkers.

We work with schools nationwide and when discussing discipline, often hear these criminalizing terms. In fact, we often hear this language more than we even hear the names of the students or the precipitating factors that prompted the incidents. It is just, well, “That kid is aggressive. He had to be removed. He was violent and I was afraid for myself and the students.” We have seen referral forms written that way and we have heard teachers describe situations like that. Now everything is always more than it seems. We come to find out there has been tension between Mrs. Jones and Steven all year. He is often talking in class and it gets on her nerves. He is, however, doing well in the class, participating, getting his work done, and even helping others. He has, however, gotten into 2 fights. Both after situations began with her singling him out in front of his seventh grade peers. Dr. Pedro Noguera names 2 types of discipline over-used in this country- humiliation- described here- and exclusion- described below (2008). Humiliation can be as simple as correcting a student’s behavior quickly in the middle of the lesson for no longer than 15 seconds before moving on but it can be extremely embarrassing for the student, and over time, particularly, if done disproportionately to certain students, can lead to other situations, that could start out as minor, escalating into more serious interactions. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, writes “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” He has described how he is driven by the idea that just because you lie once you are not a liar, just because you steal once you are not a thief. Somehow it seems, our schools lose this idea. This idea, built on second chances. And third chances. And more chances if needed. Schools were meant to be places to take risks, to try, to fail, to mess up, and TO LEARN. This spirit, grounded in hope. In possibility. In humanity. This spirit seems lost. Our schools have become reliant on the idea that if you act out, you must be held accountable. And that accountability must somehow be visible for other students to learn a lesson from, so they learn what happens when you cause trouble.

How did we get here? Somewhere along the way, we began applying broken windows theory to schooling…the slippery slope theory of disorder that suggests if we let one broken window go, the entire neighborhood will fall into disrepair, crime, and disorder and we must instead show that even that one broken window will not be tolerated (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). This zero tolerance theory applied to discipline in schooling results in our youngest kiddos marching down hallways in silence, hands behind their backs like prisoners, depriving them of their innocence, their spunk, their vitality and freedom, their humanity.

In an interview on the Laura Flanders show (2015), Stevenson says “The Bureau of Justice now reports that 1 in 3 black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison.” Why are we as educators using language that stigmatizes black males, criminalizes them, demonizes them, before they even graduate high school? Stevenson discusses the evolution of slavery- that it never really ended, but rather the narrative of racial difference just shifted. Stevenson describes the pervasive narrative of the “persistently dangerous black male.”

The NYCLU reports that each morning here in New York City, 90,000 high school students walk through metal detectors in order to enter their school buildings (2015). It must be noted that this burden falls disproportionately on students of color: “Citywide, almost half of black high school students are scanned every day — compared to about 14 percent of white students. We also found that 43% of English Language Learner high school students are scanned every day” (WNYC, 2015).

Tunette Powell wrote about her two black sons being suspended a combined 8 times as preschoolers and shared her experiences meeting a White mother at a party whose child had actually got into more “trouble” but had not been suspended. The parent of the White student had only received a phone call home. (Washington Post, 2014). This made us think of Anna Deavere Smith who interviewed hundreds of Baltimore residents for her play on the school-to-prison pipeline, and was motivated to write it after a friend told her a story of a young man who was arrested for public urination on a water cooler. Deavere Smith says, “poor kids are pathologized and rich kids have mischief.” Now we could draw the lines in Baltimore by rich or poor, or White and Black, but this is the Everyday Race Blog, after all, so we will focus on color for the moment.  Is there room for mischief? Let’s set aside mischief, trouble, and even goofing off…how about fun? Play? How about second chances? How about making mistakes?

Although only 18% of preschoolers are Black, 48% of preschool suspensions go to Black students (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014). How can this possibly be? That we see this type of disparity so early in education? Well, implicit bias does not age discriminate for one thing. These pervasively held beliefs we have about particular sub-groups of people and particular skin colors, in this case, know no bounds. Even more insidious are studies that have shown black boys- even as young as 10- are seen as older than they actually are- which can have a dehumanizing effect (Goff, Jackson, Leone, Culotta, & DiTomasso, 2014). It can take away the view of them as innocent children when we look at them as older than they are, and apply the stereotypes of grown adult black males to their behaviors (Goff et. al, 2014). Read Cleveland police seeing 12 year-old Tamir Rice playing outside in a park with a toy gun and saying they saw a menace. A danger. A threat. Pair this with the seminal work of Russell Skiba showing that children of color are punished more severely than their White peers for relatively minor “offenses” in schools (2000). You can see how we are pushing our Black and Brown males down a particular path that is informed by history, infected by a narrative, codified by labels, solidified by exclusion, perpetuated by denial, and revitalized over generations.

What is the answer? There are a few. There are calls now on social media with this hashtag #InvestinSchoolsNotPolice to reconsider how funding is allocated for discipline. The NYC School Safety Budget is $500 million a year. The interesting thing is that the schools in NYC are safe. “A student has not been shot in a New York City school in 13 years” (Associated Press, 2015). “Assaults dropped 34 percent from 2010-11 to 2014-15, according to police.” (Associated Press, 2015). There is also no research to suggest that the excessive exclusionary disciplinary policies employed by districts across the country actually have an effect at making anyone more safe (Losen, 2015). The certainty is that they succeed in excluding students, particularly those who are Black and Brown, students with disabilities, and gender non-conforming youth (Losen, 2015). Is this the investment we want to make in our students? Furthermore, the most recent violence we have read about in NYC schools was committed UPON NYC students. The case of Bruno v. City of New York was just settled this month in favor of 6 NYC students “who were punched, thrown, handcuffed for hours, verbally abused and wrongfully accused at school by the NYPD School Safety Division (NYCLU, 2015), but, we digress…

Instead of finding more reasons to kick kids out of class– not raising their hands before speaking, not “tracking” the speaker (whatever that means), talking, not sitting up straight ready to learn, not coming prepared- let’s find more reasons to reconnect them to learning! Let’s start by thinking about our relationships with kids.

Who do we know well?

Who do we need to learn more about?

With whom do we have the most frequent positive interactions?

With whom do we have the most frequent negative interactions?

With whom do our interactions tend to escalate?

How can we own our contribution to the escalation of those situations?

Who do we trust? Who do we not trust and why?

Who trusts us? Who does not trust us and why?

What can I do to mend broken relationships?

What can I do to build a relationship with _________?

How can I get to know ______________?

How will I build trust with ______________?

What can I do as an alternative to calling the office?

What can I do as an alternative to suspension?

What are 3-5 interventions I will try with _____________ before writing the referral?

After each of the above questions, add, “is this student similar to me racially, ethnically, culturally, and how, if at all, is that affecting our relationship?” Be honest with yourself.

Let’s stop creating minor “infractions” that allow more opportunities for situations to escalate into larger issues, that invite tension, conflict, and division. Instead let’s build community, let’s intentionally know our students from a profit perspective (Kirkland, 2014) and not allow petty issues to escalate to the point of community-breaking because our time is too precious. Our task too great. We are blessed with the job of teaching and learning with young minds everyday and that is not something we can or should take lightly.

One of our colleagues, Dr. Sukhmani Singh, is intentional about referring to the “criminal justice system” by its more literal name, the crime-processing system. She and her team do this because there is no justice within the system. We, as educators, can intentionally choose our language too. Let’s not criminalize our students because they are not criminals. How we speak about our kids reflects how we teach, care, know, and love them. And it is time we revolutionize that narrative we speak everyday. You see the narrative we speak promotes actions beyond words.  Actions that can have either an exclusionary or restorative effect. Narratives have power. They become things. They take on life over time and they breathe into history. They infect systems and institutions. And we, in this moment, must control and disrupt the criminalizing, dehumanizing negative stereotypes of our Black children. We can take back the words, change our actions, open up the possibilities.

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