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Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
A recent article from New Jersey news outlet NJ.com provided fresh evidence for something we’ve known for years: Black students nationwide are disciplined more often than other kids.
During the 2013-2014 school year (the most recent for which state data are available), Black students made up only 16 percent of New Jersey’s student population but represented 44 percent of all students suspended. Black students also accounted for much higher rates of school expulsions.
Past inquiries into this phenomenon have found 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. They have also identified an underutilized solution: Hire more Black teachers.
Black students who have at least one Black teacher have much better outcomes. They 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.
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 when 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. 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 have a hard time building the relationships necessary to connect with and educate their students.
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 to be suspended in that school district, whether the suspension was 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 the zero-tolerance policies responsible for maintaining the school-to-prison pipeline, and replace them with anti-racist policies such as restorative justice.
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.
Black students are at times violently beaten and even tased by police in schools. They are told their hairstyles are “distracting” and for this reason barred from athletic competitions. In addition, last year the Trump administration scrapped the Obama-era discipline policies that attempted to address the disproportionate disciplining of Black children.
Anti-racist work in schools isn’t as simple as only hiring Black teachers, but doing so is one concrete way to move this work forward.