On Tuesday’s episode of Know-It-All: The ABCs of Education, entitled “No More Kids in Jail: A Holistic Look at Student Discipline,” my guest was David Domenici, executive director and founder of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS.
We talked about modifying school discipline practices to keep children out of juvenile justice facilities, and he discussed what
education in correctional institutions for children should look like. After hearing the show, a friend of mine asked me, “Why didn’t you talk about race?” In other words, how could you possibly have a conversation about student discipline and not talk extensively about race?
And, it's true. Domenici and I didn’t talk much about race. Even though race and crime and student discipline are braided together and bound by a patterned ribbon of bias and injustice. And, even though, truthfully, we can never NOT talk about race when we’re talking about student discipline.
In November 2011, five-year-old Michael Davis was arrested out of school in California, zip tied at the wrists and ankles, after a police officer’s attempt to scare him straight didn’t go as planned and Michael, a special needs student, reacted by batting away the officer’s hand and kicking the officer in the knee. In April last year, six-year-old Salecia Johnson was arrested out of school in Georgia for throwing a temper tantrum. This past December, seven-year-old Wilson Reyes was arrested out of school in New York for stealing $5 from another student. He spent 6 hours handcuffed at the police precinct. This month, eight-year-old Jmiyha Rickman, also with special needs, was arrested out of school in Illinois for throwing a temper tantrum. She was handcuffed and shackled at the wrist and ankles. I could go on.
Somehow, we have allowed and enabled a level of criminality to creep into public education, like a serpent hungry only for a select few. Black and brown children are arrested for developmentally appropriate behavior and for acting out when they are emotionally unequipped to speak their trauma, and schools don’t take the time after such incidents to reflect with students and communities about how to work together better to provide support. Against the frenetic backdrop over school choice, black mothers are arrested for gaming public school attendance zone requirements to send their child to a better school, a game that parents from all walks of life play.
Very often it's black mothers who have to wear that scarlet letter “C” for choice or for criminal depending on your perspective. Meanwhile, white parents playing the very same game often play by different rules and are permitted to declare quiet victory while administrators look the other way, or parents with larger bank accounts simply pay for entry to a better school. As a civil rights attorney who worked for the Justice Department, I saw inequity play out more times than I care to count..
David Domenici sees the race quotient in his work but doesn’t have time to dwell. Instead, he spends his days working closely with children society has discarded. He educates children who have been locked away in detention facilities and correctional institutions, hidden away from plain view. He devises strategies for engaging families sometimes separated from their incarcerated children by hundreds of miles. He re-ignites flames in children long ago extinguished by society’s expectations and fears.
Many times school discipline practices send children on a direct path to institutional detention. As a civil rights attorney for the Department of Justice, I used to investigate schools’ contributions to the social inequities we see. I have been and am still righteously indignant about the way we treat black and brown children in school.
But I have to remember the nuance. Reminders come all the time, like in this heart-wrenching video of seven-year-old Wilson Reyes’s bullying victim, Seth Acevedo, who is nine years old. Race is always there, an ooze that covers everything in this country. It sticks in our clothes, in our hair, in our speech, tangling our feet. As we grapple with race, we also have to come up for air from time to time to examine the crevices of this reality we’ve built to make sure we haven’t neglected other things that have nothing to do with race.
Student discipline is one of those crevices and is filled with other things, several of which Domenici and I discussed. He extolled the virtues of positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) and promised that rewarding good behavior and loudly and publicly celebrating students’ achievements works well, even with older children. He said that educators have to establish high expectations for their students and must believe in those expectations themselves so that children will live up to them. Schools must communicate with parents when their children are doing well. Together, high academic achievement and pro-social behavior are a recipe for success for any child.
School discipline cannot include handcuffing seven-year-old children for 10 hours for stealing $5. Children act out for a variety of reasons, and we have to focus on creating environments where children’s insecurities are exposed and eliminated in a healthy and loving way so that they will not mistreat others. Domenici said that he cannot have a conversation with a 17-year-old student who reads below grade level about that student’s reading ability until he has connected with the student in an authentic way. Children, maybe more than adults, are sensitive to judgment and low expectations. Domenici explained that, while discipline should be used to remove students from situations in which they may be of harm to themselves and others, discipline is also an opportunity to continue to build trust and for children to know that, even when they act out, we are here to catch them because we love them and value them.
Domenici does talk about race, but mostly he just talks about his students, with energy and passion. And he is doing everything in his power to make us all see them the way he does, bringing the children who reside in the darkness of our minds into the light, letting their voices be heard. One of the tools he and his colleagues at CEEAS are using is Words Unlocked, a month-long initiative beginning in April that will publish and celebrate the poetry of incarcerated youth. Would that we could all be so progressive.
Join us this Saturday, March 16, from 1-3pm at THEARC in Southeast DC for a facilitated community discussion about schools and discipline.