The Obama guidance on discipline can help us hear what students of color are trying to say

When we talk about school discipline, we leave out an important piece of the conversation: why is it an issue in so many schools? Why are so many students acting out? Behavior is a form of communication; misbehavior is how students ask for something they need. This is true of every student in every school; it’s a normal process of testing and learning boundaries.

The understanding that kids misbehave in order to communicate something, is not applied universally across race. Instead, this truth is extended more generously to the design and implementation of discipline policies for White, middle and upper class students. This observation is supported by data documenting the disproportionate rates of suspensions and expulsions for students of color in our public schools. I’ve also witnessed it firsthand. This unjust reality, which perpetuates the opportunity gap, is what the Obama guidelines on school discipline are designed to transform.

And if we’re going to effectively engage with all students, we need the guidelines to help us identify the best ways of listening and responding to the needs of every student.

I’ve taught in low-income, middle class, predominantly White, and predominantly Black and Latinx schools. Each school has been quite different, but what was true at each school is that all students wanted to learn. It was heartbreaking to see, in every school, students of color experience harsher discipline policies and less benefit of the doubt. In the schools where the majority of students were of color, school norms were either non-existent or militaristic. In the school without community norms, discipline manifested as threats on the consequences of skipping school over the loudspeaker, security officers patrolling the halls, and an abundance of suspensions and expulsions. In the school with militaristic rules, we policed students in the halls, mandated that students be seated at all times during lunch, and gave numerous “violations.” For example, to regulate students’ posture, the dean taught us to imagine a glass of water on the student’s head and if their posture would allow the glass to stay full, it was acceptable. If the water would spill out, we were to give them a “violation.”  If students did not take out a pencil “with urgency,” they received a “violation.”

But, at the majority white school, teachers did not try to motivate students with “violations” or yell over loudspeakers; teachers usually used relationship-building to understand why students misbehave. I’ve seen firsthand what can happen when we do use these methods with all students, not just those with more privilege.

Rico was trying to tell me something

My student Rico taught me more than my alternative teaching program ever did. Rico was in and out of juvenile detention centers and, thus, it was hard for him to keep up with the content. He tried to communicate how difficult his situation was through behavior. Rico’s distracting behavior in class was his way of responding to how hard it was to see a world without possibility. Despite often missing weeks of school, Rico would spend lunch with me catching up on the notes he missed. When he was in class with his peers, his façade of class clown would reappear and derail lessons at times. Of course, I got frustrated, but I knew it wasn’t malicious; it was his coping mechanism in an unjust society. He certainly didn’t need me to police his posture or how fast he took out a pencil. He needed me to understand him and what he was going through. It took time to consistently prove to Rico that I was going to continue to see him as a good kid capable of learning and supporting his classmates’ learning. And the following year, Rico came to my classroom to say hi and tell me that if students gave me any trouble, he’d let them know not to mess with me because Ms. Leach’s teaching methods are the best. That was far from true at the time, but because school had never served Rico properly, I, a struggling first-year teacher, was his best experience. Without discipline policies that support teachers in building relationships, all the Ricos in our schools will constantly be misperceived.

Rashard and Andre were actually learning

Then there was Rashard, an incredibly sharp ninth grader in my Spanish 1 class who was often in detention or in-school-suspension because his gregarious personality couldn’t be oppressed for long. His spirit was strong and being policed by teachers made him righteously indignant. I am ashamed to say I upheld much of the oppressive discipline system, but could feel the difference between behavior that derails a lesson and shouting out as a form of authentic engagement. When students were not energetic in my class I used to kid with them and say “qué patético” about their sleepy teenage responses. One day I made a mistake in my presentation and Rashard corrected me and said “qué patético”. I had never explicitly taught that phrase and Rashard not only caught my error but made a joke in Spanish.

And in the same class was Andre, the student who sang and danced to the Spanish lyrics playing in the background in his first year learning the language. Technically I should have given Andre and Rashard violations for their “misbehavior.” But I could see that they were some of my most engaged students. They were learning!  But in classes where they were not seen this way, they became “high flyers” and problem students.

The fact that Andre and Rashard spent hours in detention and suspension rather than being celebrated for their intelligence and critical consciousness is unacceptable. Society loses when we oppress this brilliance.

Rico, Rashard and Andre are just three reasons why we need the Obama guidance on discipline.

There are so many talented, well-intentioned, caring educators who will say with confidence that they believe all students want to learn. But when we push certain students out of our classrooms more than others, our actions disagree with our words. Unconscious bias leads caring, hard-working educators to misinterpret students’ misbehavior. All students test boundaries and act out at times. When any student misbehaves, we must do more than react. We must listen to what they’re trying to say and learn how best to respond.

Our education system already offers fewer advanced classes, less qualified teachers, insufficient culturally relevant curriculum, and more oppressive discipline policies to students of color.  Keeping the Obama-era guidance on discipline is truly the least of what we should be doing to provide an equitable learning experience for Black and brown children.

The idea that this guidance could be rescinded is reprehensible.

Restorative justice programs, recommended by the Obama guidelines, are a research-backed method of improving teacher-student relationships, school culture, and suspension statistics. Diversity and inclusion professional development can help educators avoid biased tracking. The research, the resources, and the eager students are undeniable. School leaders’ actions must start to match their espoused beliefs.

Betsy Leach is an instructor in the Contemplative Education program at Naropa University specializing in Multicultural Education. She spent her first nine years as a teacher teaching Spanish and Spanish for Heritage Speakers K-12. As a consultant, she facilitates workshops on culturally and linguistically diverse education, responsive family engagement, and cultivating an awareness of implicit bias in order to create more equitable, inclusive organizations.

More Comments