“We have to scream,” “What is justice?” and other nonthreatening messages stood out in purple paint on Ron Russell Middle School.
David Douglas School District administrators easily identified the girl from surveillance video. She was asked to write an apology letter.
“I am sorry for my actions, but I’m not sorry for my voice,” said the first line.
The racial inequities in policing that are animating the protests since George Floyd’s death are intertwined with the same emotions creating school discipline problems.
Black students in grades K-12 are disproportionately disciplined, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office report. Not surprisingly, Black students are least likely to see school discipline as fair and have a more negative opinion of discipline practices than staff or parents, according to a recent YouthTruth report. YouthTruth offers surveys of school attitudes around the nation.
Equity advocates say schools need to look at their policies that unfairly single out students of color, especially Black children, and address the systemic problems alienating kids.
“This was a real wake-up call that we haven’t given our students the voice they need,” said Michael Contreras, principal of Ron Russell.
When Contreras took over the school a year ago, teachers said the school had a discipline problem. But when he looked at student survey responses, he discovered a connectedness problem.
Students did not trust their teachers or feel like they were treated fairly or respected. They also didn’t feel their lessons were relevant to their lives.
“Maybe the discipline issues are a symptom of something deeper,” Contreras said.
Contreras said Black parents have told him that it seems teachers too often focus on their children’s behavior rather than their academic growth.
Contreras is creating a clearer referral system and guidelines for when a student is removed from class.
Discipline problems are an indicator of a system problem, that something is not working for that student in that system, said Tammy O’Neill, North Clackamas School District associate director of high schools and athletics. During her career, she has worked extensively with at-risk student populations.
“Kids do well when they can,” O’Neill said. “They don’t walk through those doors to fail.”
Punitive discipline and exclusionary practices lead to the school-to-prison pipeline, O’Neill said. Punishments don’t fix the problem, she said, they just push the student out of the system.
School systems are built on White norms. Referrals and absences are clues to which students are not feeling included, she said.
Students need to have people in the building who look like them and can relate to their experiences, she said. Minority population students also need safe spaces, such as Black student unions or Latino clubs, where they can talk with peers who share their problems, she said.
Staff need to be trained on culturally responsive practices, O’Neill said. She emphasized that White teachers can be kind, empathetic and engaged and that is powerful, but they can’t always understand the experiences of students of color.
“It’s OK to say that as a White person that you don’t know things,” O’Neill said. “It’s not about you.”
It is important for schools to commit to being actively anti-racist, she said.
“The worst thing we can do is go along like we usually do – here’s our first day of school script,” she said. “The worst thing schools can do right now is to ignore what is going on.”
Centennial High School junior Sade Davis said that too often racial episodes are ignored and nothing is done.
“When it comes to certain issues, we don’t have a good way of solving the issues,” Davis said.
Davis is outgoing and feels like she has a relationship with some administrators in her Gresham school. She said she sees a difference in how they treat her versus Black students they don’t know as well.
In Davis’ experience, discipline in the office tends to follow consistent rules, but in the classrooms, teachers often have different standards for students and shifting lines of tolerance for behavior.
Racist behavior gets ignored or lightly addressed.
“It’s almost like they don’t know what to do,” she said.
Kameron Berry, a Black student who just graduated from Centennial High School, said he felt judged by teachers before he ever said anything.
“They are never going to target us, but you feel alienated,” he said. “You feel different.”
Berry said he frequently saw White students who were having a bad day or struggling given considerations or support on an assignment while Black students were ignored or punished.
Berry said he personally didn’t have to deal with unfair discipline.
“I’ve learned what to do not to get in trouble with White people, basically to hold my tongue and just know when to back down,” he said.
Berry would like to see teachers gain greater cultural understanding. He gave an example of how Black students, because of their culture, tend to nod and say “Yes” when they are engaged in class but that action upsets some White teachers.
Bill Graupp, Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus president, gave a similar example of the cultural differences that get students of color in trouble.
“People in places of poverty have learned that being loud is being heard,” said Graupp, an OSBA and North Marion School District board member. “Get loud to be heard, but it comes across as being angry and you get disciplined.”
He said children cannot be expected to navigate needing a different communication style at school than at home. The solution: educators need greater cultural understanding.
Taye Spears, Alice Ott Middle School vice principal, has been part of David Douglas School District’s effort to embrace restorative practices, which emphasize relationships and understanding in any discipline proceeding. Restorative practices look at what teachers can do to make the system feel safer for all students.
She said that White teachers need to recognize that many Black students or their families have suffered trauma at the hands of White people and may not always feel safe talking to them. Spears said students are dealing with the societal grievances that are fueling the protests.
“Kids are coming to school with that same worry that they are not going to be treated equally,” she said. “How do we create a safe place for our kids when they see what is happening in society?”
The mother of the Ron Russell eighth grader said her daughter has had to deal with racial incidents and unfair discipline throughout her school life. The mom is White, and her children are multiracial.
“As a parent, I feel like they always have to try harder. It doesn’t seem right,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I had to try harder, so I can’t completely understand.”
The mother emphasized that school issues are symptomatic of underlying societal problems. Microaggressions and student disconnect are common in schools.
“Cultural awareness and compassion need to happen,” she said.
Her daughter said students need more ways to express themselves than just how the school wants them to, such as writing a note rather than talking to a teacher or just being allowed to go outside and scream.
Asked why she painted on her school:
“So people around us can see it,” the girl said. “I wanted them to change.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA