When 5-year-old black boys are disproportionately suspended in school, it’s time to talk about racial bias

The latest Government Accountability Office analysis of school discipline policies has everyone talking about the disproportionate rates at which Black students are disciplined in school.

It’s not surprising that Black students across the country continue to be disciplined more often and more harshly for behaviors similar to that of their White peers. We see it in our prisons; why would we expect to see anything different in our schools?

Unfortunately, Colorado is no exception.

Despite representing 4 percent of Colorado’s population, Black males made up 12 percent of those receiving arrests or citations, according to the most recent report by the Department of Public Safety.

What is surprising—and perhaps more concerning—is that a rising level of disproportionate school suspensions in Colorado begins with students as young as age 5.

According to an analysis by Chalkbeat, “while Black boys make up up only about 2.3 percent of the state’s kindergarten to second grade students, they receive almost 10 percent of suspensions given in that age group.”

The numbers are what they are, and why they exist has long been a part of the debate.

What I know is that historically, the negative perception of people with black skin in this country has shaped an ongoing narrative and contributed to a life experience that is drastically different from those with white skin.

For young Black males, these implicit and sometimes overt biases often result in damaging visual depictions, grossly exaggerated descriptions, and negative labels that perpetuate the ideals of white supremacy.

Remember this H&M ad featuring 5-year-old Liam Mango?

Even if you ignore the fact that the White child is deemed a “survival expert” compared to the Black child who is not even considered human, there’s a whole history of racism to discuss. The fact is, the origins of comparing Black people to apes dates back centuries. The ape reference is now and has traditionally been used to depict Black people as unintelligent, dangerous, inferior beings. And whether intentional or not, these comparisons continue to exacerbate the negative ways Black males are viewed in society.

Multiple studies and research continue to show that Black boys are often seen as being older and more dangerous than their White peers.

Leaders of one such study wrote, “These racial biases were driven entirely by differences in automatic processing. In other words, no conscious thought was involved; whites simply saw a black male face and reacted in ways that indicated a heightened level of perceived threat. Even when the face was that of a 5-year-old.”

So what do we do in Colorado and around the country to change the way Black students, and boys in particular, are perceived?

We must acknowledge that the history of discrimination in our country has the ability to precondition even the most excellent and well intentioned educators toward unconscious racial bias. So we must give them the tools to fight against it.

With an intentional commitment to help teachers and leaders identify their biases and develop strategies to keep them in check, schools can improve their culture and increase achievement while decreasing disproportionate suspension rates and stanching the school-to-prison pipeline.

Having had the opportunity to participate in and facilitate these types of initiatives before, I know that these highly sensitive discussions can be challenging to implement and uncomfortable to engage in. But, there are ways to increase the positive impact of the investment.

Leader involvement is key

First and foremost, having the leader of a district or organization champion the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training sends a strong message straight from the top acknowledging that everyone has biases that affect how we engage with each other, students and families, and we can and will do whatever is needed to improve the experience of those in our community who have traditionally been marginalized. When leaders schedule, participate and mandate that every principal and senior leader participate in full-day DEI trainings throughout the year, it makes creating change more than a possibility, it’s inevitable.

Paying for expert training is worth the investment

Discussions around race, white privilege, and bias can be highly sensitive for everyone involved. Having these discussions facilitated by a third-party expert trained in DEI-related issues also creates a neutral foundation for everyone to engage. The facilitator’s objectivity makes it possible to create a safe space for individuals to speak their truth, to challenge each other and to be challenged in a way that might not be as effective if the training is conducted by leaders within the organization.

Training that can be scaled to reach all employees benefits the entire community

Finally, trainings can be designed in a way that allows district or network leaders to transfer their knowledge and adapt it for their individual school teams. Tight-knit school teams can then be given the time and space to examine issues of bias and privilege unique to their school communities. As a result, the entire organization can commit to the hard work of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, mitigating issues of bias before they surface and swiftly addressing those that do surface. Individuals learn to identify their own biases and because new levels of trust form between colleagues, individuals can support each other and educate each other throughout their own phases of personal development.

Eliminating bias is not easy. But when schools have an ongoing commitment to support every employee’s ability to see themselves and their students through a new lens, progress can be made.

If more schools and districts in Colorado could invest in similar approaches, perhaps we could start to change the lens through which we see all of our children, giving all of them a better shot at a great education…and taking a step toward ending racial prejudice in our society.

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