Back to School with #Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter as a vehicle for addressing racial disparities in school discipline

With a new school year approaching, I found myself thinking about #BlackLivesMatter (BLM).

Not just because of the violent summer of 2016, marked by more Black men dead at the hands of police and snipers targeting white police officers.

Or, because I worry about how my students process these terrible events, particularly against the backdrop of a political campaign season that has unleashed some of the most overtly hateful and vituperative racialized and sexist rhetoric I have ever seen.

BLM has elevated and placed into context the police shootings.   It has the potential to do even more.  As an “ideological and political intervention,” BLM is about more than just protesting:  its focus is on securing material change for African Americans.  That’s why, as we go back to school, I see BLM as a promising vehicle for challenging deep seated inequality contributing to Black dis-ease in society:  disparities public education.

With its roots in protesting police brutality against African American communities, Black Lives Matter is a social movement focused on highlighting and dismantling systemic barriers confronting Black people.  Among its organizing principles is a commitment to family-friendly spaces and communal supports for our children, which necessarily implicates public education and the racial inequalities plaguing it. Inequities in resources and quality of school come at a great cost to Black communities and the entire nation. As President Obama observed after the tragic shooting deaths of five police officers in Dallas, “we choose to underinvest in decent schools,” which he argued has helped fuel the divide between law enforcement and communities.

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In this sense, education reform is a ripe target for BLM activism.  Take school discipline, for example.

School-to-Prison Pipeline

Too many Black children attend schools where the most prominent features are harsh punishment, metal detectors, and police personnel.  While administrators say such measures provide safety, they transform the learning environment from being incubators for college into prep schools for incarceration.

These practices, sometimes called the School-to-Prison Pipeline, persist at every level of schooling.  For example, the Department of Education (ED) reports that Black pre-school kids are suspended from school more than their white counterparts– almost four times as often.   This pattern persists throughout their education , with African American boys and girls getting suspended at rates exceeding their enrollments:    ED found that Black girls, for example, were 8% of enrolled students but 14% of students suspended.   In a January 8, 2014, “Dear Colleague” letter, ED and the Department of Justice (DOJ) further cited research indicating that the increased suspension rate wasn’t the result of greater misbehavior by Black children.  Instead, the agencies found that “racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

The Effects of Disparities in Discipline

While some educators may argue that punitive measures are necessary to increase learning and safety in schools, the research suggests the opposite.  For example, ED and DOJ reported that punitive measures in schools are linked to “diminished educational engagement; decreased academic achievement; increased behavior problems; increased likelihood of dropping out; substance abuse; and involvement with juvenile justice systems.” Scholars Kayla Gass and Judson Laughter also found that, for many students, these measures make students feel unsafe or as if they are in a penal institution instead of an academic one.  (Kayla Gass and Judson Laughter, “Can I Make Any Difference?” Gang Affiliation, the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and Implications for Teachers, 84 J. of Negro Education, 222 (2015)).

The Agencies’ Legal Diagnosis

With this confluence of disparate treatment, disparate impact, and disastrous results, ED and DOJ put schools on notice that their disciplinary policies may violate Title IV, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in elementary and secondary education, and Title VI, which forbids such discrimination in any federally funded program.  Both departments have the authority to enforce these statutes by investigating student- or parent complaints or conducting compliance reviews, in which they proactively examine schools’ policies.

What Role Could BLM Play?

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With its national network and stated commitment to eradicating policies and practices that oppress African Americans, BLM and its allies can elevate the need for school reform, building upon President Obama’s statement connecting the desperate condition of public education to violence in too many communities.  To use the paradigm BLM applies so powerfully, denying Black children quality education is a form of state violence that “deprives them of their basic human rights and dignity.”  BLM could be the spark for a multi-pronged movement, one that puts boots on the ground in school districts across this nation to challenge educational practices that constrain Black students’ life chances.

As a practical matter, that suggests building upon ED and DOJ’s recommendations.  Among them:

  • Advocating for change in school districts’ codes of student conduct.  ED and DOJ have recommended evidence-based approaches that reinforce positive student behavior and provide children with the support and instruction necessary to succeed in their interactions
  • Pushing school boards and lawmakers to provide schools with the necessary school-based counselors, social workers, and other professionals.
  • Urging school officials to rethink the use of police in school—school resource officers.  As ED and DOJ recommend, they are supposed to help school personnel administer discipline, to be the first responders in the educational context.

These are just a few of the recommendations ED and DOJ offer that community activists can leverage to benefit their schools.

Author: Verna L. Williams

Interim Dean, Nippert Professor of Law, co-founder and co-director of Cincinnati Law's Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. Professor Williams joined Cincinnati Law's faculty in 2001. She teaches Constitutional Law; Gender and the Law; and Family Law. Her research examines the intersection of race and gender in law and society.

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