Nick was a 6th grader who, before joining my classroom, had been suspended from several of his previous schools. He is easy to pick out in a class of thirty students not because he is Hispanic, but because he is markedly older, taller and more mature looking. When I met Nick at the back of the room during our end-of-year award ceremony and asked him how he was feeling, he replied in a brash, angry tone: “I don’t know why I’m here. This is a waste of my time. This is stupid.”
I reminded him that he was a brilliant scholar and that I also knew what it felt like to be at a ceremony and not receive an award. He verbally pushed back with angry, negative comments. I asked him if he was feeling stressed about passing sixth grade because he had been retained or had been threatened to be retained in prior grades.
At first, he said no, but as I waited silently, he began to cry.
As I comforted Nick, it became clear his behavior wasn’t motivated by disrespect, but out of longing for positive confirmation of himself in an academic setting. Nick does not have a single male in his family ― father, step-father, or uncle ― who isn’t in jail. School hasn’t been easy for him and if I and other teachers around him aren’t thoughtful about our instruction and discipline choices, he will become another statistic. Research shows that men of color are disproportionately disciplined throughout our public school system and that this has contributed to the kindergarten-to prison-pipeline.
During our restorative conversations, I learned that Nick simply needed someone to tell him two things he had rarely heard at school: we loved him and we believed in him.
At other schools, Nick told me he was often sent out of class and repeatedly suspended.
Did anyone really see him and take the time to understand him?
During class work time, when I saw Nick’s hands stop typing, his face lean closer to the screen, and his eyes become wider, I knew he was having a hard day and that he was missing his family. I didn’t have to look at his screen to know he was looking at pictures he had saved on his e-mail of his uncles and dad who were in jail. On really bad days, he would yell violent phrases about not wanting to do his work, how much he hated our school, and threaten people around him for no apparent reason. When managing these behaviors, I had to constantly remind myself of Nick’s prior experiences and the practices that consistently signaled to him that he didn’t belong. I also needed to remember that the men in Nick’s family may have also received this same negative messaging in their own school environments. More than ever, Nick needed to be in a warm, inclusive classroom, learning with his peers— not suspended, sitting at home alone, or in jail.
We have a duty to provide “the Nick’s” in every school with a strong public education ― not incarceration.
Unfortunately, Education Secretary Betsy Devos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions seem to disagree and may take action soon to repeal the Obama-era guidance on discipline which encourages schools to carefully examine the exclusionary discipline practices such as suspension and expulsion, which have been statistically proven to disproportionately affect students of color like Nick and those with disabilities.
It is imperative that Devos and Sessions not only uphold, but further initiate action aligned with the Obama-era guidance to right the discipline ship and turn it down the path of alternative discipline practices. These alternative practices enable all students to succeed and grow in our public school systems rather than our prisons. Students like Nick have endured enough isolating and destructive discipline practices that have become the norm throughout our education systems.
It is our government’s duty to advocate and uphold our students’ civil rights. The inclusive, thoughtful, and reflective discipline practices we must move towards should be the cornerstone of our work as a country to do right by all students and give every student, no matter the color of their skin, the best education and close the opportunity gap. Today, I call on Secretary Devos and Attorney General Sessions to keep and implement the Obama-era guidance on discipline, because it’s what my students deserve.
Kathleen Campbell teaches at STRIVE Prep – Kepner, a turnaround school in Southwest Denver. She was a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year. Kathleen is a Teach Plus Colorado Teaching Policy Fellowship alumn. Student names in this piece have been changed to protect privacy.