Education Equity

Biased Discipline at My School

A public high school administrator recounts the moment she recognized that her teachers disciplined black and white students differently.
December 7, 2016
Portrait of a male African American high school student
©Twenty20/@stacybephotography

I have every reason to quit my job except that when I consider doing so, I have palpable guilt at the thought of the students I might be letting down. They’ll still get a pretty good education, sure, but I have to think that the number of times I speak with students and rationally discuss their typical adolescent behavior that others might not see as typical is worth something. For the last seven years, I have talked myself out of quitting.

In my first years as an administrator in a public high school, I began to see what so many before me righteously called out as systemic racism. Of course, when those two words come up in conversation, there are many who would like to instead discuss affirmative action or who say, “But things are different today than before Brown v. Board of Education.” Or they simply say the name President Barack Obama as if it were proof that racism no longer exists.

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The most blatant example of a biased punishment I’ve had to deal with was also the first, and it involved the school dress code. I’ve never been a fan of uniforms, and our high school didn’t have them, but we did have a dress code, as well as a violation that kept coming up: boys wearing sagging jeans. Now, I’m fine with not seeing someone’s underwear during the school day, but this is clearly a violation which disproportionately affects black males. It’s also one where the punishment can end with the student leaving school and missing out on academic time.

An Eye-Opening Incident

As I was doing my morning hallway supervision, a teacher called me over to where she was berating a black male student about his pants. She ordered me to take him to the discipline office, where I could “fix him.” Those were her actual words, and I flinched, but still I had to follow through. I cocked my head at him and offered a sheepish smile that said, “Sorry, Marcus. I gotta take you. You broke a rule.” The smile must have done the trick, because he took a deep breath, straightened the books in his arms, and followed me. As we walked down the hallway, he began pointing out other boys with sagging pants.

All of the other boys were white. They were walking around, free to go about as they wished. “Are you gonna get him, too, or is it just me?” he asked. “What about him? He’s sagging. I don’t see anybody asking him to pick up his pants.” The hallway was the longest one we had in the building, and by the time we reached the discipline office he had pointed out four other boys, all white, wearing their pants in the same way. No teacher had stopped them.

As hard as it was for me to admit, Marcus was right. Here was a policy that was written into our handbook, but the consequences for breaking it were not equitable for all students. I looked around and realized that the other teachers in the hallway were either ignoring the white boys who were sagging or were engaged in conversations with them. Not one of them stopped me the way the first one did to tell me to take those boys to the discipline office. And I was afraid that if I stopped every time he pointed a boy out, he would get away from me or I would be outnumbered by all the boys I was trying to discipline.

What to Do?

I asked Marcus to wait for me by the office. He agreed even though his face showed confusion. I’m certain that he wondered if he had changed my mind when he saw me make a beeline for a teacher in conversation with one of the other boys we had seen. As I approached, I said, loud enough for the teacher to hear me, “What’s up with those pants, young man?”

It wasn’t the response of the student that jarred me. It was the teacher. She turned to him and said, “Look at you. Pull those up, would you?” Not only did she not ask that I discipline him, she asked him nicely to pull up his pants. We both waited patiently while he did so, and then she turned to me, “See? Wasn’t that easy? All we have to do is ask them.”

But that wasn’t the truth of what I had been experiencing. The truth is that the bias many teachers have against students of color shows up in how they treat white students differently.

By the time I got back to Marcus, I was in tears, and that thoroughly confused him. After all, wasn’t this just a simple dress code rule? Hadn’t we just run the gauntlet of rule-breaking students who also needed to be hauled to the office and given the progressive discipline punishment? It wasn’t that simple.

“Marcus, pull up your pants. Keep them up, please. Can I trust you to do that?”

He was stunned. He couldn’t believe that I had just asked him nicely to pull up his pants and that I wasn’t going to punish him. Later that year, when he graduated, he told me I was the first teacher to see him as a person and give him some dignity when correcting his behavior, and that he was grateful he didn’t get suspended that day, because that’s where his progressive discipline was headed.

I can’t quit. There are a million more like Marcus.