Voices in Education

Race and School Discipline in the COVID Era
As schools reopen across the United States, there has been a rash of headlines about school discipline crises. Teachers and school systems have been forced to consider what they should do if a child refuses to wear a mask or plays with a toy gun during remote learning. They must identify appropriate responses to children who struggle with the return to school, following recent trauma. Many educators are struggling to address student behavior under extremely stressful conditions, in both remote and face-to-face environments.

Unfortunately, we are likely to see continued evidence that race influences these responses. Research has shown that white girls are significantly less likely to be subject to school disciplinary practices than their peers. These patterns start early. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 47% of students suspended from public preschools were Black, even though Black students are only 19% of all preschool students. Fifty-four percent of preschool students were boys, but boys were 78% of students suspended.

One explanation for these statistics is that because Black boys are seen as less innocent than their peers, they are denied what psychologist Phillip A. Goff and colleagues call “the protections of childhood.” Indeed, a recent study shows that teachers are more likely to inaccurately perceive Black boys as angry than they are Black girls or white children. Sociologists John Diamond and Amanda Lewis have demonstrated that schools often treat Black students as “inherently suspect” and white students as “inherently innocent.”

I spent the 2016-17 academic year observing public schools in gentrifying areas of New York City. Early on, I became interested in two kindergarteners at an elementary school that I call P.S. 411. I noticed that both Hazel (a pseudonym for a white girl) and Marquise (a pseudonym for a Black boy) frequently disrupted the steady hum of their classroom. I also noticed that although both kids’ behaviors presented challenges for their teacher, Ms. O’Shea, the school treated Hazel as a child with a problem and Marquise as a problem child.

Ms. O’Shea responded empathetically when Hazel refused to enter the classroom or participate in kindergarten activities; she worked with an administrator to create a space where Hazel could transition into the school day, arranged for counseling through an on-site psychologist, and enlisted administrative support for creating a special half-day schedule just for Hazel.

When Marquise protested classroom activities, Ms. O’Shea responded quite differently. She reprimanded him, called in school security to remove him from the classroom, and eventually wrote him up for an in-school suspension in order to help him see the consequences of his actions. Luckily for Marquise, this suspension involved two days talking with the school’s parent coordinator, a Black man who told him, “My love for you runs deep. I want to see you excel, and I’m going to do everything I possibly can to help that.” Black boys are frequently not so lucky.

Observing this chain of events, I was struck by the two children’s very different trajectories. In both cases, educators had to make a series of decisions about how to best respond to challenging behaviors in the midst of a child’s difficult transition to kindergarten; in both cases, educators truly believed they were acting in the best interests of the child. But they started from a place of offering Hazel support and punishing Marquise.

As we face down this pandemic, we need to keep in mind how it has heightened inequalities. In order to avoid doing further damage, we must constantly interrogate the ways race and gender shape how many well-intentioned, hard-working educators relate to students. This year (and every year), we need to ask ourselves to imagine new realities: What does it mean to show our students that they belong in our classroom communities, whether virtual or face-to-face? What might it look like to provide all our children with the support they need to thrive—even during a pandemic? How can we teach all our kids that Black childhoods, like white ones, matter?

About the Author: Alexandra Freidus is an assistant professor of educational leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University. She studies and works with educators, policymakers, families, community members, and young people who seek to interrupt racialized inequities in K–12 schools. Alexandra Freidus is the author of "'Problem Children' and 'Children with Problems'" in the Winter 2020 issue of Harvard Educational Review.