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It’s time to change the way students are disciplined in school

The enforcement of rules and policies is unequal, and since we know better, we can do better.

empty school
Photo by Sin on Unsplash

Here’s an unfortunate example of the antiquated rules that target students of color. High school Junior Andrew Johnson-getting his dreadlocks cut off by a trainer so he can wrestle in a match. A referee said that Andrew’s hair did not meet the required rules, so Andrew was presented with “a choice”: forfeit or cut it.

Andrew offered to braid his hair and hide it beneath his ear guards, but the referee stated that was not an option because his hair “was not in his natural state.”

Andrew chose to cut it and went on to win the match.

This case is not unusual. Over time, there have been countless stories and lawsuits around the unfair treatment of Black students in schools.

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The 2019 incident reminded me of what poet Maya Angelou once said: “When you know better, do better.”

But when will we finally “do better?”

Because we should already know better. The numbers are stark: In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that Black students represented 15.5 percent of all public-school students, but about 39 percent of students suspended from school.  The 2017 Brown Center Report on American Education: Race and school suspensions  found that Black students lose up to four times more days of instruction to suspensions than their white peers.

The disparities begin in preschool; they can have a negative effect on students mentally, psychologically and even physically, and can lead to poor academic performance.

Let’s examine some commonly used public school policies and practices that are often disproportionately enforced against students of color.

Lateness to school

Despite having access to public transportation, students may be late to school because they are watching a sibling and have to wait for an adult to return home from work. Or their lateness could be due to another factor that they have little or no control over.

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Many school policies treat lateness as a serious infraction that results in a loss of instruction, and/or the students being placed in a designated holding area until the next class period starts. Repeated lateness can lead to in-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions when latenesses accumulate.

Lateness policies may be difficult to change, but it makes little sense to punish excessive tardiness to school with more loss of instructional time. In an effort to make these policies more equitable, educators should consider more welcoming policies that allow students to report directly to class or to a designated holding area where learning is still taking place.

Out of uniform/dress code infractions

Similar to tardiness, school uniform and dress code infractions are rarely the fault of the students.

Dr. Kristilynn Turney
Dr. Kristilynn Turney
Rigid school uniform policies place a burden on some families. Not every family can afford multiple school uniforms or do laundry on school schedules. While we know that some students are rebellious and purposely choose to wear inappropriate attire to school, some may truly be doing the best that they can. A closer review of the causes of dress code infractions can foster more equitable solutions.

Take the story of Akbar Cook, the principal at West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey. In 2019, he realized that some students weren’t coming to school because they were being bullied for wearing dirty clothes. He responded by having five commercial-grade washing machines and dryers installed in the school to help address this concern.  With detergent, fabric softener and dryer sheets donated by the community, Cook was able to provide a thoughtful solution to a big problem.

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Discipline/poor grades without parent contact

When I was a school principal, I required that all parents be contacted about all discipline matters. My charge was a simple method of improving the culture and climate through parent awareness and support.

This requirement challenged and encouraged teachers to reserve discipline for extreme measures and to be accountable to parents regarding their students’ infractions. The same expectation went for all administrators and counselors. If a student was in the office, a parent or guardian phone call was the norm.

This equitable practice carried over to academics as well. Teachers were asked to maintain a phone log of parent communication about students who were failing or in danger of failing. The policy of parent communication worked to help support all students, especially those who were most commonly disciplined and poor performing.

I challenge educators to start doing better — to review policies and practices to identify inequities. These inequities may have a huge impact on students’ learning and academic success. We know this and we know better.

Kristilynn Turney, Ed.D., served in public education for 20 years in the Greater Cincinnati and Dayton areas of Ohio before starting her own companies, Dr. Kristilynn Turney, LLC, and EdPD Unlimited.

This commentary is republished from The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.