Data showing black children in schools nationwide are disciplined more than other kids has been available for years, but this disgrace is still making headlines. This includes a recent article from New Jersey outlet NJ.com noting the disproportionate disciplining of black children in the state’s public schools.
According to the Civil Rights Data Collection, during the 2013-2014 school year (the most recent state data available), black students made up only 16 percent of New Jersey’s student population but represented 35 percent of all students with an in-school suspension, 39 percent of all students with one out-of-school suspension, 50 percent of all students with more than one out-of-school suspension, and 37 percent of all school expulsions. These percentages are higher than the national statistics.
To address the racial disparity in school discipline practices, the New Jersey Assembly Education Committee has advanced a bill to “create a ten-person task force to ‘analyze the effectiveness’ of the status quo in school discipline and determine whether they were contributing to racial imbalance.”
Black students are more often than not without a Black teacher despite the research showing the benefits of to all students of having teachers of color.
What they are likely to find is what has already been discovered by other such inquiries: that black children are disciplined more than others because of zero-tolerance policies, a lack of school counselors, and an increase in police presence at schools.
One way schools might reduce the disproportionate discipline of black students, and other students of color is by hiring more Black teachers.
As a black man and former classroom teacher of black and Latinx students in the high-poverty city of Camden, New Jersey, I rarely gave a child a detention and never recommended that a student be suspended. Like all teachers, there were times I disciplined my students—but I had a rapport with them. My brand of discipline involved a stern look, a firm word, or a phone call home.
Yet many white colleagues of mine had trouble connecting with students of color on this basic level. They often assumed behaviors exhibited by black students—speaking loudly or questioning authority—were disrespectful. Without an awareness of cultural differences—what educators call cultural competency—teachers will have a hard time building the relationships necessary to connect with and educate their students.
In the 2013-2014 school year, 84 percent of teachers in New Jersey were white; only 7 percent of New Jersey teachers were black. That matters because when black students have a black teacher, their outcomes improve. Black students who have had at least one black teacher are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and are less likely to drop out of school. Black students are also less likely to receive exclusionary discipline at the hands of a black teacher.
Evidence suggests that White teachers struggle to understand the role that race plays in their interactions with black students. For example, students who engaged in a “stroll” style of walking, more often associated with black movement style, were more likely to be judged by teachers as more aggressive or low-achieving academically.
A journal article I wrote in 2017 explored the exclusionary discipline of black students in New Jersey. My study found that the higher the percentage of black teachers in a school district, the less likely black students were suspended in that school district, whether suspended in-school or out of school.
Hiring black teachers is an immediately tangible way to address the disproportionate exclusionary discipline of Black students. But the work of removing systemic racism in public schooling doesn’t end there.
School administrators and governing boards must make it a priority to remove racist (and specifically anti-black) policies in schools, such as zero-tolerance policies responsible for maintaining the school-to-prison pipeline, and replace them with anti-racist policies such as restorative justice.
To be clear, that is what this is about: eradicating racism and anti-blackness in schools.
Public schools are white institutional spaces—social spaces where the demographics and cultural norms privilege whites. Schools devoid of cultural inclusivity reflected within the policies, procedures, curriculum, professional staff, and around the building are schools where knowing better doesn’t translate into doing better.
And public schools aren’t only white institutional spaces—they are also anti-black spaces.
Black students are more often than not without a black teacher despite the research showing the benefits of to all students of having teachers of color. Textbooks whitewash history by hiding African enslavement and its influence on society. Schools remain named after Confederate soldiers who fought to maintain black enslavement. Black communities are denied local control of their schools by state governments who wrest it away.
This has implications for how black students are treated. They are at times violently beaten and even tased by police in schools. They are told their hairstyles are a distraction in school and will bar them from athletic competitions. The Trump Administration has removed the Obama-era discipline policies that attempted to address the disproportionate disciplining of black children.
Anti-racist work isn’t as simple as only hiring black teachers, but hiring black teachers is one concrete way to move this work forward.