Both/And, Priorities and Working Toward Anti-Racist Schools

Earlier this week, Melinda Anderson wrote How Long Will We Tolerate Racial Profiling In Our Schools for Good Magazine. It’s an excellent piece that uses an experience her son had in school where an administrator chose to deal with a less-than-fantastic moment her middle-school aged son and his friends had in the lunchroom as a springboard for talking about zero-tolerance policies and the negative effect they have on all kids and especially on children of color. (For the fortunate record, the administrator in her son’s situation chose a far more appropriate way to deal with the kids’ behavior.) Go read her piece – it is outstanding.

What is interesting and frustrating is that many commenters, both on Twitter and on the site, have pushed back that this had to be about race. “Zero tolerance,” it is argued, “is bad for all kids, so why is this about race?” To make that argument is to ignore that zero tolerance — and policies like it — have created the environment where black students – primarily boys – are suspended at disproportionately high rates. And what was so wild to me was that her piece pointed out more progressive disciplinary policies such as restorative justice are good for all kids and good for kids of color… and that led to this exchange on Twitter:

And that led me to blog, because she’s right, and I wanted to explore that in greater detail.

There seems to me to be a difference between saying, “This is good for all kids, and it happens to be good for kids of color too…” and saying, “This is good for kids of color and good for all kids too.” The first doesn’t make inclusively humane practice the focus, rather putting it as an after-thought. The second recognizes that we have to understand that school – as an institution – too often is authoritarian in nature and those authoritarian practices, while bad for all kids, have disproportionately affected students whose existence is already on the margins of the dominant white culture in America.

Karen Mapp, in writing about ways schools can create better parent-school relationships, writes about the idea that parents bring the ghosts of their own experiences into their children’s school with them. We have to understand that our students do that as well. More than that, they bring all that they are — all their experiences — with them as well. For students who have reason to believe that the overarching society is not one that supports them, school cultures where punitive disciplinary policies are the norm can — and quite likely will –serve to further alienate them. We must actively work to ensure that does not happen.

As educators, therefore, we need to be cognizant of the work we have to do to create more equitable schools. It is of the utmost importance that we examine our policies, procedures and structures to ensure that they do not reinforce the worst of what we see around us in the world. Restorative justice and other progressive disciplinary policies are powerful moments of “Both/And.”  In doing so, we can make great strides to ensure that the work we do is good for students of color. What’s pretty cool is that we’ll create schools that are better for all children, too.

3 thoughts on “Both/And, Priorities and Working Toward Anti-Racist Schools

  1. Well-said. This reminds me of the practice of “flipping the script” or paradoxical interventions. Because we all carry the “ghosts” of our education, and our students carry the ghosts of teachers and institutions past, we can help disrupt the cycle by thinking critically about those scripts. When we make informed decisions based on the students’ needs rather than ‘how it’s done,’ we do good work.

  2. I appreciate the growing recognition about the effects of zero tolerance policies in schools and our justice system. As a teacher who is exploring ways to increase student buy-in, I find it difficult when students view the system as being against them. New approaches outside of ‘zero-tolerance’ would go far in mitigating the perception in certain groups that society is against them.

    Joel Bigelow

  3. Restorative justice and alternative discipline strategies (other than suspension) must be a part of today’s schools. What to do when they are not adopted, this remains problematic. I student taught at an urban comprehensive school, and it was apparent to me that my cooperating teacher, while he seemed to care deeply about students, carried racist attitudes. Over 80% of my students tolerated my stumbling along, developing as a teacher. Schools like SLA seem to cultivate a common culture in every classroom, that reinforces student responsibility.

    However, schools are not all designed that way, and when the code of conduct and administrators decide a teacher must do this and this and this, I feel obligated to enforce the rules, even if I do not agree with them, because I will be treated with zero tolerance as a teacher. Many teachers I speak with explain that they have better things to do than enforce rules that students will not accept, and this disparity between classrooms and teachers determines which teacher succeeds and which give up in urban classrooms.

    I do not believe this issue is insoluble, and schools like SLA seem to model a best practice. The greatest challenge for any teacher is how to become part of the solution, and not part of the problem. Can teachers do this without community support? I don’t think so, unless the teacher possesses personal charisma greater than mine! Overcoming student perception of societal bias is not easy even if I carry deeply beliefs in the importance of equity and opportunity for every student.