Taking a Stand Against Discriminatory School Policies

One of the first steps to rooting out policies that discriminate against Black students is to look at the data.

August 11, 2020
Cultura Creative (RF) / Alamy Stock Photo

The recent civil unrest in the country that began as protests against police brutality have led to society taking a closer look at all forms of systemic racism, including in education.

Racist policies have greatly attributed to the huge disparity in suspension rates between Black students and their White counterparts. Several studies note that this disparity does not reflect higher rates of misbehavior among Black children. Through the implementation of zero-tolerance discipline policies, discriminatory dress codes, and systematic exclusion of Black high school students from Advanced Placement (AP) courses, many school districts have played a major role in disenfranchising Black students from having a positive K–12 school experience.

“In-hair-ently” Racist Dress Codes

The racist policing of Black hair and physical appearance, by far, has greatly contributed to the high Black student suspension rates in recent years. Black students, compared with their White counterparts, are issued dress-code violations at disproportionate rates due to discriminatory enforcement. In Massachusetts, twin sisters Mya and Deanna Cook’s braided hair extensions were a “distraction” and needed to be “fixed,” according to school officials. In Texas, De’andre Arnold’s locs were too long to keep “off his shoulders, above his earlobes, and out of his eyes.” As a result, he was suspended and barred from his high school graduation. Three years ago, three high school students from North Carolina were in violation of their school’s dress code when they wore geles as part of the Black History Month celebration. Two years ago, Lawrence Charles of Arizona wore a durag that, according to the vice principal, did not fit the profile of a “college ready” student.

What is all this supposed to mean? I’m a Black man who wore a durag all throughout college, earned two degrees, and has sported locs throughout his entire teaching career. So are teachers like me an exception to the rules, or do these rules defy logic?

Suspect by Default

The implicit bias and low academic expectations of White suburban educators create hurdles for Black students who want to take AP courses. A recent USA Today article pointed out that these students say they “face pervasive prejudice when it comes to access to advanced coursework.” In the article, Black high school students shared their experiences with racism in AP courses, including barriers to entry and intense scrutiny once they were in the courses. One of those students, 11th grader Will Barrett, said, “I often feel like there’s 1,000 eyes on me while I’m taking a test... watching me to see if I fail.” As a result of the heightened surveillance, he felt anxious and stressed.

Virtual Injustice

In May, Grace, a 15-year-old Black girl from Michigan, was incarcerated after a judge decided she had violated her probation by not completing her online coursework. What’s tragic about this story is that Grace, a special education student, was ultimately found guilty of struggling to adjust to our new normal of online learning—a common issue that’s shared by millions of parents, students, and teachers nationwide. The girl, who was on probation for stealing a cell phone from a classmate and for fighting with her mother, reportedly has ADHD and a mood disorder. Her teacher told her caseworker that Grace was “not out of alignment with most of my other students,” but that didn’t make a difference.

This case became a rallying cry for those fighting against the school-to-prison pipeline, particularly as it relates to Black girls. Grace was released on July 31 after an appellate court ruled in her favor. This came after 300,000 people signed an online petition calling for her to be set free.

What Actions Can We Take as Educators?

In order to combat this trend, we all must play a role in combating the structural racism embedded in the language of school policies and eliminating the racially motivated punitive measures used against Black students within so many school districts nationwide.

  1. Sign the petition for the Crown Act to support the fight against discrimination of race-based natural hairstyles such as braids, knots, twists, and locs in public schools.
  2. Within your school district, a teacher leadership task force should be formed to thoroughly examine data, policies, and practices with an antiracist lens and challenge systemic decisions that have historically discriminated against Black students. This work can also be achieved at the individual school level. Below are examples of questions that you should ask when performing this assessment:
  • Are students and staff of color negatively impacted by these policies?
  • Are Black students being suspended at much higher rates than White students? If so, what is the cause of this disparity?
  • Do any of the policies benefit one group and place other groups at a disadvantage?
  • Which groups of students are most disciplined based on dress code and physical appearance?

As educators, we cannot limit our participation in this fight to Black Lives Matter chants and yard signs. Although they are great for bringing awareness to the issue of systemic racism, they will not bring the systemic change that’s needed in our schools. In order to attack racism, we must attack the policies that serve as the lifeline of racism within our respective school districts.

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