A local school district’s response to police brutality and public demands for justice is critical. Schools are centers for thought, information, and community building. On the topics of policing and legal system justice, schools have a particularly pivotal role to play. For many of our students their first encounters with systemic authority and “policing” comes in school in the form of student discipline policies and practices. First experiences may come as early as elementary school, often as a result of adult responses to or discomfort with student behaviors in the classroom. Policing students comes from teachers, principals, counselors, and other adults with whom students are intimately connected and reliant upon for their education. Sadly, in my work with districts that are trying to become more equitable I have seen many persistent inequities. Inequities in all facets of the school day, but particularly in student discipline. All too often student experiences of policing and discipline in school mirror the racial inequities, disregard, and harm that we see within the larger societal policing and justice systems. Sometimes school discipline and policing lead a student directly into the web of the legal system. School discipline data consistently show disproportionately punitive and sometimes aggressive consequences for black and brown students in comparison to white students. This is unacceptable. Black Students’ Lives Matter.

Now is the time for reflection among school and education leaders on the ways in which schools are complicit in larger systemic racism and the policing of black and brown communities. Now is the time for school and education leaders to make long-overdue changes to our mindsets and practices that contribute to the racial injustice our students experience. There is more we need to do on a systemic level in schools.

What are the measures education institutions can take right now to collaborate in fortifying racial and social justice?

The focus of this article is on school district systemic responses and actions more so than individual mindset and personal action. This article is written for school leaders, school boards, and people who want to influence school leaders and school systems. It is designed to facilitate conversation, provide considerations, guidance and avenues for systemic change.

With these goals in mind, I offer seven ideological shifts, institutional commitments, and systemic change measures. These ideas are not exhaustive of all the ways schools need to improve, but can be considered a set of immediate-term responses a school, school district, or educational institution can take to join as collaborators in fortifying justice.

 

Say something: Right now. ASAP. And ongoing. As an education institution, do not stay silent.  Silence is complicity. As a system, speak out against racism and inequity early, often, courageously, and clearly. Release public statements and social commentary, make public commitments. Name systemic racism, name murder, honor the demand for justice, and publicly commit to being part of the solution. Consistently and repeatedly communicate the district’s position about current events and against racism and injustice in general.

Timely Questions:

  1. What is our school or district’s position on police brutality and social justice?
  2. What do our students, families and staff need to hear from us right now?
  3. What methods will we use to communicate and dialogue with our community?

A few practical actions:

  • Communicate directly and often with students, staff, and families about racism and social justice.
  • Use a variety of social media platforms to speak to the public about the district’s positions on– and commitments to– social justice.
  • Participate in media interviews, blogs, and community dialogues.

 

Get comfortable with feelings: Get comfortable with the expression of feelings. Be okay with the expression of emotion from students, families, and staff. Recent events are emotional, infuriating, and traumatizing. Yes! Share feelings from the district. The district should feel angry, sad, shocked, helpless, motivated, committed… whatever those feelings are, express them as an institution. Be receptive to and appreciative of any and all feelings expressed within or toward the district. Do not try to control feelings.  Do not oversimplify or overintellectualize feelings. Validate feelings.

Timely Questions:

  1. As an institution… how do we feel right now?
  2. How are our students, families and staff feeling?
  3. How can we make space for the feelings of the moment? And all the moments to come?

A few practical actions:

  • Have school staff (teachers, counselors, liaisons) reach out to students and families to see how they are feeling right now.
  • Create multiple spaces for sharing and validating feelings.
  • Develop and require emotional intelligence as a key skill for being an educator in your district.

 

Take a holistic view: Acknowledge the horror of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmed Arbury (to name the ones that occurred just this spring) and the overwhelming reality that these are not isolated incidents or even unforeseen. Disregard for black and brown lives is all too persistent and predictable. This disregard and dehumanization has been solidified and demonstrated by over 400 years of systemic racism. Investigate the messages spread within your school or district. We must acknowledge and teach the historical and systemic foundations of current events. We must overhaul the biases and ideology of white supremacy that our curriculum reinforces.

Timely Questions:

  1. How/what does our curriculum teach about the foundations of racism and injustice?
  2. How/what does our curriculum teach about the tenets of justice?
  3. What does our curriculum teach about the purposes of protest and social dissent?

A few practical actions:

  • Review curriculum for inaccurate or sanitized narratives about injustice and systemic racism.
  • Revise curriculum to be accurate and direct about injustice and systemic racism.
  • Expand and update school materials and informational resources to dynamically address social justice, protest, and anti-racism work.

 

Be accountable and transparent: Yes, collectively we are being called upon to address inequities and racism in systems such as law enforcement and justice systems, but schools are equally complicit in the layers of systemic racism and social injustice that are currently on full display.  Schools are influenced by and contribute to larger systemic racism, bias, and injustice. In fact, schools often germinate systemic racism and injustice as they are frequently the place where the seeds of injustice are planted. Acknowledge this. Take responsibility for education’s role in the historical and systemic context.

Timely Questions:

  1. What is our school or district’s contribution to inequities in our community?
  2. Where and from whom do we gather data about the equity and inequities in our schools?
  3. Where do we need to be more transparent with our school community about our outcomes related to educational equity or inequities?

A few practical actions:

  • When students or communities identify inequities in the schools—listen.
  • Be transparent with school data. Even data that exposes inequities.
  • Publicly admit equity issues in the school and when they come to your attention make a concrete plan to address them.

 

Conduct discipline data analysis: In many cases school data will reveal deep inequities in discipline and referrals, in students’ feelings of belonging, and in families’ comfort with the schools. Additionally, many of the inequities that these data reveal are predictable and persistent, spanning decades. Review your discipline data for inequities and disparities based on race, gender, Free/Reduced Price Lunch, Special Education, etc. Review your student and family feedback and engagement for inequities and disparities in feelings of belonging. Be transparent with this data. Create a correction plan and systems of accountability for any inequities, disparities, or discrimination that is revealed.

Timely Questions:

  1. Do we have a systemic process for gathering and analyzing discipline data in our school or district?
  2. Do we have disparities in our discipline data that are predictable by student identity?
  3. Are we transparent about any disparities in our discipline data?

A few practical actions:

  • If you have not already, gather discipline data and analyze for inequities.
  • Share discipline data and analysis publicly. Transparency creates accountability.
  • Make concrete and urgent plans to address the policies, practices and procedures that are creating inequity.

 

Review and renovate discipline policies and practices: Take a detailed and reflective look at the school’s policies and practices for student behavior and discipline. As a part of this reflection, investigate the health of educators’ relationships with students. When we have student behavior or discipline encounters, we need to be engaging in authentic, meaningful, respectful relationships to find solutions. Simply outlining sets of rules and demanding compliance often contributes to inequities. Often students are perceived and responded to differently depending on their race or identity. Overhaul these policies and practices to eliminate all forms of bias and harm and to increase respect and relationship building. If you have school resource officers (SRO) or other forms of school security, evaluate the posture and perspectives their work is built upon; assess for equity or inequities in how students are treated.

Timely Questions:

  1. What postures do our discipline policies and practices take? Are they punitive and compliance oriented or solution and relationship focused?
  2. Who do our discipline policies and practices advantage? Who do our discipline policies and practices marginalize? Are the answers to these questions predictable by race?
  3. Is there a core group of educators who are having a disproportionate amount of discipline referrals? Who are they? How are we mitigating any negative impact for students?

A few practical actions:

  • Ask traditionally disenfranchised students if discipline policies and practices are equitable.  They will tell you. Believe them.
  • Provide unconscious bias, conflict resolution, and relationship building professional development for school staff.
  • Create clear protocols and systems of accountability for respectful and equitable discipline engagement with students. Ensure educators follow these protocols.

 

Support, amplify and engage student voice and activism: Many of our students are angry, confused, and/or activated to speak out for justice right now. Our schools need to affirm what students feel and often name: that systemic racism exists and society does not treat all people respectfully or equitably. Curriculum centered with an anti-racism, social justice orientation acknowledges that schools operate within, are influenced by, and contribute to larger societal injustices or justice. Schools are an ideal space for developing student understanding, voice, and agency related to anti-racism and social justice. Schools should include curriculum that supports and develops students’ self-advocacy and their ability to be agents for change. Schools can be the perfect assistants to students in their role in demanding justice. Schools can develop students to proactively build the society they will inherit into a more equitable society.

Timely Questions:

  1. What social justice issues do our students deeply care about?
  2. How are we supporting student voice and activism?
  3. What is the role of student social justice activism in a comprehensive education?

A few practical actions:

  • Engage traditionally disenfranchised students in leadership and decision-making positions within the school or district.
  • Provide school credit for social justice activism by students (similar to providing credit for community service).
  • Designate educators as adult supporters and assistants to student activism.

 

These are just a few of the considerations, conversations, and actions we can take as education institutions right now. Schools are conduits for social progress or for social stagnation.  If stagnation means the continuation of systemic racism and injustice– if stagnation means the continuation of the devaluing of black lives– then we must choose progress. Shifting foundational ideologies and deeply ingrained systemic habits is never-ending work.  This work is not a check list to be completed or a set of simple shifts and easy changes. No, these ideas are but a small slice of a larger educational reform agenda, one requiring complete overhaul and transformation in our schools. And one that needs to start right now.