Making Black Lives Matter at School

Advocates for justice know that racism in the schools isn’t only a product of openly racist and bigoted people. It is an institutional problem, rather than a merely individual one. As Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi has pointed out, “Anti-Black racism operates at a society-wide level and colludes in a seamless web of policies, practices, and beliefs to oppress and disempower Black communities.” 

“Anti-Black racism operates at a society-wide level and colludes in a seamless web of policies, practices, and beliefs to oppress and disempower Black communities.” 

With this understanding, Black Lives Matter at School nationally has issued four core demands to disrupt this anti-Black web of policies, practices, and beliefs in the education system. The first demand is to end “zero tolerance discipline” and replace it with restorative justice.

Black youth have been disproportionately suspended and expelled from school since the explosion of so-called zero tolerance policies modeled on the racist “war on drugs.” As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, explained in an interview: 

“Many people imagine that zero tolerance rhetoric emerged within the school environment, but it’s not true. In fact, the Advancement Project published a report showing that one of the earliest examples of zero tolerance language in school discipline manuals was a cut-and-paste job from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration manual.” 

“The wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States with the rise of the drug war and the get-tough movement really flooded our schools. Schools, caught up in this maelstrom, began viewing children as criminals or suspects, rather than as young people with an enormous amount of potential, struggling in their own ways and their own difficult context to make it and hopefully thrive.”

Black students are suspended at almost four times the rate of white students nationally and Black girls are suspended at six times the rate of white girls. While Black girls make up only 16 percent of the female student population, they account for nearly one-third of all girls referred to law enforcement and more than one-third of all female school-based arrests.

Howard Zehr, a professor of restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University, explains that punitive approaches to discipline, known as retributive justice, ask these questions:

• What rule has been broken? 

• Who is to blame? 

• What punishment do they deserve?

By contrast, the Black Lives Matter at School movement has called for the funding and implementation of restorative justice practices to replace retributive and zero tolerance approaches. These restorative practices are used proactively in schools to build healthy relationships, not just reactively after a conflict arises. 

Some of these restorative practices include the use of peace circles, peer mediation, community conferencing, and trauma-informed approaches to teaching. Zehr explains that when conflicts do arise, a restorative justice approach asks these questions: 

• Who has been hurt and what are their needs?

• Who is obligated to address these needs?

• Who has a “stake” in this situation and what is the process of involving them in making things right and preventing future occurrences?

Asking these questions holds the potential to build nurturing communities rather than to just react to disruptions of community and resort to punishment.

The second demand of the Black Lives Matter at School movement, besides reforming the use of discipline, is for schools to hire more Black teachers. Nationally, around 80 percent of teachers are white. 

Additionally, there has been a dramatic displacement of teachers in recent years. As an article in Mother Jones pointed out, since 2002, “26,000 African American teachers have disappeared from the nation’s public schools—even as the overall teaching workforce has increased by 134,000. Countless Black principals, coaches, cafeteria workers, nurses, and counselors have also been displaced.”

The closing of schools in Black and brown neighborhoods has been one of the biggest drivers in pushing out Black teachers, who are more likely to teach at those schools.

The closing of schools in Black and brown neighborhoods has been one of the biggest drivers in pushing out Black teachers, who are more likely to teach at those schools. In Chicago, for example, in 2013, then-mayor Rahm Emanuel led the effort to close nearly fifty schools where the vast majority of students were Black and Latinx. Chicago has also lost nearly half of all its Black teachers in the past fifteen years. 

The vital necessity of hiring more Black teachers was made clear in a 2017 study from American University, which found that “having just one Black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade reduced low-income Black boys’ probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent.”

Thirdly, the movement demands that Black history and ethnic studies be mandated in every school, kindergarten through twelfth grade. 

Ethnic studies is a pedagogical approach fought for and won by students, beginning in the late 1960s. But since that time, ethnic studies programs around the country have been underfunded and attacked, leaving young people increasingly vulnerable to corporate curriculums that minimize racism and Black history. 

Take, for example, the textbook that fifteen-year-old Coby Burren exposed in the fall of 2015. Coby was in geography class at Pearland High School, near Houston, when he read an assigned page of his textbook and noticed something disturbing: a map of the United States with a caption claiming the Atlantic slave trade brought “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.”

Coby took a picture of his textbook and texted it to his mother, Roni Dean-Burren, adding, “We was real hard workers wasn’t we,” along with a sarcastic emoji. Not only had the McGraw-Hill textbook used the term “workers,” instead of “enslaved African people,” but they had placed the chapter on the enslavement of Africans within a section of the book entitled “Patterns of Immigration,” as if Africans came to the United States looking for the American Dream, rather than in chains at the bottom of slave ships. 

This is just one example of the humiliation and dehumanization that Black students experience from corporate curriculums on a daily basis. Another common problem is that Black history is often reduced to teaching primarily about slavery, as if the African American experience can be reduced to oppression. 

As Malcolm X once said: “When we send our children to school in this country they learn nothing about us other than that we used to be cotton pickers. Why, your grandfather was Nat Turner; your grandfather was Toussaint L’Ouverture; your grandfather was Hannibal.” Echoing Malcolm’s words, Black Lives Matter at School student organizer Israel Presley said in an interview about today’s movement, “Why don’t you ever teach me how we fought back, because I know my people are strong.”

The power of ethnic studies to transform education has been well documented. A 2016 study by researchers at Stanford University found strong positive associations with adding ethnic studies to the curriculum: students’ GPAs improved on average by 1.4 grade points, attendance rose 21 percentage points, and class credits earned increased by 23 points.

In 2018-19, Black Lives Matter at School added a fourth demand to its list: Fund counselors, not cops. Security officers and cops outnumber counselors in three of the five largest school districts in the United States.

Today, 1.7 million children go to a school in the United States where there is a police officer and no counselor—and some 14 million students attend a school where there is a cop but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. Police are a huge drain on resources. When school districts fund police officers, they are choosing not to fund other vital support staff.

According to a 2017 ACLU report, schools in Washington State pay on average $62,000—and as much as $125,000—per full-time equivalent officer per year. This is money that could be used to increase the number of school counselors, psychologists, teachers, and other student support services. During the past twenty years, the number of police officers in schools has exploded, from only a handful to an estimated 17,000 police officers on school campuses nationwide. 

And, as the ACLU states, “The rise in school policing cannot be attributed to a rise in dangerous crime in schools. Particularly in Black and brown communities, school police have historically gone well beyond addressing serious criminal activity, instead targeting perceived disorder or rowdiness.” 

One of the reasons for the dramatic increase of police in schools is that from 1999 to 2005, “the federal COPS program awarded in excess of $753 million to schools and police departments to place police officers in schools.”

Moreover, students are not being targeted at random. A joint issue brief from the Advancement Project, the Alliance for Educational Justice, Dignity in Schools, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund revealed: “Although students of color do not misbehave more than white students, they are disproportionately policed in schools: nationally, Black and Latinx youth made up over 58 percent of school-based arrests while representing only 40 percent of public school enrollment.”

Despite these glaring inequalities, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rescinded the guidance issued by the Obama Administration directing schools to reduce racial disparities in how they discipline students.

“They’ll pull you out into the hallway and they’ll ask you to empty your bags, but moving too slow causes them to rush you and dump it all out on the floor anyway.” 

Black high school graduate Marshé Doss describes the pain and humiliation of being targeted for a “random” search by the police in school: “They’ll pull you out into the hallway and they’ll ask you to empty your bags, but moving too slow causes them to rush you and dump it all out on the floor anyway. And then sometimes they’ll briefly check through it after they dump everything on the floor, and then they’ll be like, ‘OK, pack up your things and go back to class.’ And for me, after they’d dumped everything, they took my hand sanitizer, and they were like, ‘You’re going to use it to get high and sniff it.’ ” 

Increasingly, school discipline issues that used to be handled by administration and parents are now being treated as criminal issues to be dealt with by police officers. Take the case of a high school student in Pierce County, Washington, who was sent by school police to the prosecuting attorney on suspected charges of assault in the fourth degree for pouring chocolate milk on another student in the school lunchroom (thankfully, the prosecutor declined to file charges in juvenile court). 

The United States is one of a few countries that stations police in schools, and the resulting arrests have terrible consequences for students. A first-time arrest doubles the odds that a student will drop out of high school, and a first-time court appearance quadruples the odds. Juvenile arrest also increases students’ chances of future imprisonment. 

The four demands of Black Lives Matter at School expose the racist narrative that lower academic outcomes and graduation rates of Black students are due to lack of motivation or the dysfunction of Black families. The four demands also stand in stark contrast to the agenda of the massive corporate education reform effort led by billionaires who attempt to disrupt, dismantle, and profit from public education. 

These efforts—led most notably by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family (owners of Walmart)—have pursued a strategy for the schools consisting of ramping up the use of standardized testing, privatizing public education, closing schools serving Black and brown students, and opposing teachers unions. 

Each of these efforts has only exacerbated the most entrenched aspects of institutional racism in the schools, and for all the money that they have poured into these initiatives, the major indicators for outcomes for Black students have not improved. 

Will Black lives ever truly matter in the education system? The answer to that question will not be determined by political elites or billionaire corporate education reformers. In 1857, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass made the observation that we must remember today if we are to achieve an emancipatory education system: “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow . . . . The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” 

The answer, then, to whether we will someday see a school system worthy of Black students lies in the hearts of educators, students, parents, and antiracist organizers everywhere who tire of inequality and rise up to strike the blow for freedom.

From Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, edited by Denisha Jones and Jesse Hagopian, published December 1, 2020, by Haymarket Books and excerpted with permission. Excerpt is from the introductory chapter written by Hagopian. The book is available for purchase at

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