Do You Really Believe All Children Can Learn? Then Stop Disciplining Black Students Out of the System

Ending education’s original sin

Students chat as they leave Martin Luther King Jr. High School Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015, in New York. Photo: AP Photo/Kathy Willens

If we viewed students as learners and not uneducable criminals, then we wouldn’t kick them out of schools.

We certainly wouldn’t shuttle children through an adult justice system.

Education’s original sin of not believing children are actually children erodes even the most strident of educators’ belief that all children can learn and should be educated in school (and not disciplined out of it).

Believing in children as learners is why schools should applaud Louisiana  Senate Bill 324.

Join the conversation later on Andre Perry’s radio show, “Free College,” hosted Tuesdays on WBOK1230 in New Orleans at 3pm Central/4pm Eastern 504.260.9265.

Under the Senate bill, youth arrested for nonviolent crimes would be tried and imprisoned under the juvenile justice system. Sponsored by Sen. J.P. Morrell (D-New Orleans), the bill would raise the legal age in the definition of a delinquent from 17 to 18. This bill should shortly reach Gov. John Bel Edwards for signing.

The complicity between education and criminal justice systems should be apparent. From a negative view of youth, schools not only adopted no-tolerance policies of the criminal justice system, they often fueled it through suspension and expulsion.

Arrests are often made on the school grounds. Police and Security Resource Officers are becoming hired muscle for teachers. In addition, we issue suspensions as if it helps students graduate. Actually, multiple suspensions increase the likelihood of dropping out of school by 10th grade threefold. This is the same rate at which dropping out of school increases one’s chances of being incarcerated.

At the core of both these horrible sets of policies is the lack of belief in children as learners. Locking up or putting out problems is the antithesis of teaching. Regressive criminal justice policies and harsh school discipline policies are evil cousins that rob black and brown students’ humanity.

Related: Mississippi leads south in black student suspensions

According to the Louisiana Department of Education, during the 2013-2014 school year, 13,535 of 61,201 total out-of-school suspensions were due to willful disobedience. Eight thousand willful disobedience suspensions were dispensed to the very young: grades Pre-K to 5. A higher percentage of those suspensions were handed out to black children, who make up 44 percent of Louisiana students but 67 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 68 percent of expulsions.

Willful disobedience is code enforcement for those who believe black kids don’t deserve an education.

Out-of-school discipline obviously doesn’t work for individual students who are suspended or for communities (except for the justice system).

Related: How schools can lower suspension rates and raise graduation rates

There’s even growing evidence that overwrought suspension is harmful to “well-behaved kids” in school who aren’t disciplined. One study found that more suspensions lowered academic achievement among non-suspended students. In addition, suspension targets black and brown children – the people who need public systems to really care for them.

These factors all prove that suspension and expulsion do not work.

Related: What happens when instead of suspensions, kids talk out their mistakes?

If you really believe that all children can learn, then you have to believe that you can teach them. The irony of major education groups’ history of blocking such legislation is the subtle admission of an inability to teach and reach students.

In the hood we often say, “If you’re scared, go to church.” (Some regions say, “If you’re scared, call the police,” but that saying wouldn’t work for this particular column.) The point is that if you are ill equipped as an educator to deal with certain situations, ask for support. Don’t put children and communities in peril by projecting one’s teaching inadequacy, fear and youths out in the streets.

The elimination of expulsion and suspension from discipline practices is the work that comes from a true faith that “all children can learn.”

It is said that faith without work is dead. Juvenile justice advocates are giving life to faith by offering an opportunity to apply good work to education’s most sacred saying.

K-12 education groups can act on faith by supporting legislation that can reduce suspension and expulsion.

Schools ought to support this legislation.

Unfortunately, another bill, House Bill 372, did not get enough votes this week to make it off the house floor. That bill would have given teachers better tools to deal with discipline issues in the classroom, before they escalated. The lack of support from the K-12 community is but another sign that educators really don’t believe all children can learn.

Schools should have supported House Bill 372.

Because the only lesson that is “taught” from out-of-school discipline is how to give up on children.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).