Love At First Sight: Rethinking School Discipline

The Dignity In Schools Week of Action Panel.

The Dignity In Schools Week of Action Panel.

In the context of school discipline, in my experience, students have regularly shared their pain and frustration of not being able to connect the discipline received to the infraction or explanation provided by adults who say they care about them.

This is just one of the many reasons why the Department of Education is committed to rethinking school discipline.

During the 2015 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in September, I participated in a panel discussing disparities in school discipline, specifically strategies to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Anita Sewell shared her story of being suspended for correcting her teacher about the history of civil rights activists. Sewell was frustrated with what she deemed a flawed lesson, and knew her tone of voice likely became inappropriate, but she also thought her voice was neither valued nor heard. I frequently hear versions of this story throughout the country in my role as Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

In October, I joined a panel with Miajia Jawara, a youth advocate and member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Miajia began by highlighting what felt like a positive experience, noting she was given an alternative to suspension by an educator who felt she was gifted and special – only to realize all of her classmates weren’t getting that same second chance. While appreciative, Miajia and other advocates struggled with feeling some students were placed on a pathway to juvenile justice and ultimately long-term confinement. This was amplified with the release of a fact sheet during the event showing the huge gap in investments between funding for schools and funding for jails in some states.

Anita Sewell passionately shares her experience.

Anita Sewell passionately shares her experience.

These examples, and many others like them, highlight the need for caring and concerned adults to consider how and why students face consequences in schools and communities. Rethinking school discipline should mean using data to inform us about where there may be harsh and unfair practices, as well as considering what it looks like to hold students accountable for their behavior in ways that support positive development and accelerate learning and achievement. Using tools like the story maps created by the U.S. Department of Education to view a district’s discipline story can move stakeholders from being unclear how they can help to action, and ensure all students’ rights are protected.

Recently the National Black Child Development Institute celebrated its 45th annual conference. I participated in a panel discussion where we were charged with analyzing connections between education and the criminal justice system. Jeremiah, an eight year-old, asked the crowded room of adults how he can be sure his teachers will keep him safe and secure at school. The fact that he felt the need to ask this question was not only heart-wrenching, but also showed that even our youngest scholars grapple with the messages we send them when we exclude them from schools. Jeremiah’s reality is also a reason why we are being proactive about taking steps to eliminate exclusion from schools for our youngest students.

Jeremiah and his brother Joshua addressing the audience. (Courtesy: William Lee, NBCDI)

Children, like adults, sometimes make mistakes. Students understand the power of their voice and also acknowledge they don’t always act appropriately. However, they expect adults to see them as valuable from the moment they arrive at school, and to support their path into adulthood especially when they make mistakes. Please join the Administration as we continue to Rethink Discipline, making sure every student not only has a high quality school to attend, but feel welcomed the moment they enter our doors, receiving our love at first sight.

Khalilah M. Harris is Deputy Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.