Harsh and racially disparate discipline practices are widespread in America’s schools.
Not so long ago in Texas, for instance, 75 percent of black students had been suspended at some point in high school. For black males in Texas, 83 percent were suspended.
Nationally, black students lost nearly five times as many days of instruction due to out-of-school suspensions as white children. Meanwhile, 1.7 million students attend schools with police officers but no counselors.
As a public policy scholar who focuses on education reform, community organizing and racial justice – and as I argue in my book, “Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out” – none of these staggering statistics will change unless there is a new grassroots movement led by people of color.
More specifically, I believe there needs to be an educational justice movement to build the power to transform the nation’s public education system to provide a quality and equitable education for all.
I speak not just as an observer, but as one who has actually collaborated with one of several organizations that are beginning to coalesce into a grassroots movement that is national in scope. That organization – the Dignity in Schools Campaign – along with others like the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, are all fighting to end the racial disparities that beset school systems throughout the United States.
Victories at the local level
The new movement is creating important changes in districts across the country.
For example, Zakiya Sankara-Jabar had to drop out of college when her 3-year-old son was repeatedly suspended and expelled from preschool in Dayton, Ohio. As she spoke with other black parents and did some research in her college library, Zakiya learned that her experience was not unusual. She co-founded Racial Justice NOW! to organize other parents to advocate for change.
The group joined the Dignity in Schools Campaign, which provided the new group with much needed support and resources – like a model alternative code of student conduct to replace zero tolerance policies. It also provided training opportunities for parents to learn how to advocate for policy change.
In a few short years, parents in Racial Justice NOW! achieved a series of victories. For instance, they won a moratorium on pre-K to third-grade suspensions in Dayton schools. They also changed the district’s code of conduct to end zero tolerance policies and won the implementation of restorative justice alternative programs in eight schools. Restorative justice approaches help schools get at the root causes of behavioral issues. Rather than punish and suspend, students and teachers gather in circles to discuss the harm caused by conflicts and attempt to restore relationships.
Similar victories have taken place at large school districts elsewhere. For instance, a number of organizing groups working with youth of color in Los Angeles schools who faced repeated suspensions – often for minor misbehavior – formed the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition. The coalition led a campaign to lobby the Los Angeles Unified School District to adopt a School Climate Bill of Rights.
Allies are crucial
With allies like Board of Education member Monica Garcia, the bill passed in 2013 and ended suspensions for “willful defiance,” an offense that is subjectively interpreted by teachers and affected by racial bias. As a result, the number days lost to out-of-school suspensions fell from nearly 75,000 per 2007-2008 school year to just over 5,000 by the 2016-17 school year.
The bill also supported restorative justice programs. Research has shown that less punitive and more positive school climates – both chief aims of restorative justice – are tied to improving attendance rates, test scores, promotion rates and graduation rates.
Teacher allies have proved critical to the movement’s ability to implement restorative alternatives. Movement activists fear that restorative justice might fail if it is simply imposed on teachers without their buy-in or the resources to faithfully implement it.
Teachers Unite, a group of New York City public school teachers, lobbies their fellow teachers to change their “hearts and minds” away from zero tolerance discipline and toward less punitive approaches such as restorative justice. At these schools, restorative justice is more than a “program.” It becomes a true partnership with students, families and teachers to transform relationships and create positive school cultures that support student success.
Larger problems loom
Racial disparities in discipline aren’t the only problems the movement must confront. Children from low-income communities of color attend schools that are systematically underresourced. These schools often have less qualified teachers, larger class sizes and less challenging curriculum.
Technical changes – like improvements to curriculum or teaching methods – can help in small ways but ultimately fail to address the systemic nature of inequities in education.
Changing those larger problems requires more services - like social-emotional supports and health care services located in community schools – and greater resources to lower teacher-student ratios, modernize school facilities and provide up-to-date classroom materials.
The new educational justice movement faces challenges with the current administration as well. For instance, the Trump administration is contemplating withdrawing federal guidance that warns school districts against zero tolerance discipline policy.
Yet the movement’s strong local base continues to create change at district and even state levels where the majority of education policy is determined and funded. Public education remains vital to the promise of American democracy: It profoundly shapes the life opportunities of future generations. The new grassroots educational justice movement is working hard to make this promise a reality in the lives of children of color and their families.