It’s time to change the way students are disciplined in school



Here’s an unfortunate example of the outdated rules that target students of color. High school student Andrew Johnson has his dreadlocks cut off by a trainer so he can wrestle in a match. A referee said Andrew’s hair did not meet the required rules, so Andrew was given “a choice” to give it up or cut it.

Andrew offered to braid his hair and hide it under his earmuffs, but the referee said that was not an option as his hair “was not in its natural state”.

Andrew chose to cut it and won the match.

This case is not unusual. Over time, there have been countless stories and lawsuits regarding the unfair treatment of black students in schools.

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The 2019 incident reminded me of what poet Maya Angelou once said: “When you know better, do better.”

But when are we finally going to “do better?â€

Because we should already know better. The numbers are striking: In 2014, the US Government Accountability Office reported that black students made up 15.5% of all public school students, but around 39% of students suspended from school. The 2017 Brown Center Report on American Education: Race and school suspensions found that black students lose up to four times as many teaching days due to suspensions than their white peers.

The disparities start in preschool; they can have a negative effect on students mentally, psychologically and even physically, and can lead to poor academic performance.

Let’s take a look at some commonly used public school policies and practices that are often disproportionately enforced against students of color.

Late to school

Even though they have access to public transportation, students may be late for school because they are watching a sibling and having to wait for an adult to come home from work. Or their delay could be due to some other factor over which they have little or no control.

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Many school policies consider delay a serious violation that results in loss of instruction, and / or students are placed in a designated waiting area until the start of the next class period. Repeated delays can lead to school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions when the delays accumulate.

Late schooling policies can be difficult to change, but it makes little sense to punish excessive delay in school with a greater waste of teaching time. In an effort to make these policies more equitable, educators should consider more welcoming policies that allow students to report directly to class or to a designated waiting area where learning is still taking place.

Infractions outside the uniform / dress code

Like delays, school uniform and dress code violations are rarely the fault of the students.

Dr Kristilynn Turney

Rigid school uniform policies place a burden on some families. Not all families can afford multiple school uniforms or do laundry according to school hours. While we know that some students are rebellious and deliberately choose to wear inappropriate clothing in school, some can really do their best. A closer examination of the causes of dress code violations can promote more equitable solutions.

Take the story of Akbar Cook, the principal of West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. In 2019, he realized that some students did not come to school because they were being bullied for wearing dirty clothes. He responded by having five commercial grade washing machines and dryers installed in the school to help solve this problem. With community donated detergent, fabric softener and dryer sheets, Cook was able to provide a thoughtful solution to a big problem.

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Discipline / poor grades without contact with parents

When I was a school principal, I requested that all parents be contacted regarding all disciplinary matters. My charge was a simple method to improve culture and climate through parent awareness and support.

This demand challenged and encouraged teachers to reserve discipline for extreme measures and to be accountable to parents for their students’ infractions. The same expectation has been held for all directors and advisers. If a student was in the office, a phone call from a parent or guardian was the norm.

This fair practice has also been passed on to academics. Teachers were asked to keep a telephone log of parent communications about students failing or at risk of failing. The communication with parents policy helped support all students, especially those who were most often disciplined and underachieving.

I challenge educators to start doing better – to look at policies and practices to identify inequalities. These inequalities can have a huge impact on student learning and academic success. We know that and we know better.

Kristilynn Turney, Ed.D., worked in public education for 20 years in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton areas of Ohio before starting her own businesses, Dr. Kristilynn Turney, LLC and EdPD Unlimited.

This comment is reposted from The Hechinger report, an independent, non-profit news organization focused on inequalities and innovation in education.


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