2 Rules to Explain Why Expulsion Hearings Will Always Be Biased Against Black Boys

Jun 27, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Dirk Tillotson

Four hours in an expulsion hearing gives you time to think. And afterwards, you are wrapped tight. So it takes a little time to unwind. I attend these hearings too often as part of my work. Well, I don’t get paid for it, so “work” may not be the right word...as part of my duty. I have sat on both sides of the table, as a school leader disciplining students and as a school board member hearing disciplinary appeals. Mostly I just get calls from families or educators. And I show up to help them deal with school or district staff. My experience has taught me two simple rules that govern most disciplinary processes: Rule #1: If you have a lawyer, you win. If you don’t, you lose. And if you don’t have a lawyer, you probably don’t even show up to fight. Rule #2: If there’s something unusual about the circumstances then a Black boy is on the sharp end of the lash.

Rule #1: Lawyer Up

Everyone messes up the disciplinary process. District schools do. Charters do. Educators are rarely versed in the district’s rules or even in the specifics of their own school’s policies. So there are almost always procedural or substantive problems. But that assumes that families show up to defend themselves in the first place. Most families don’t have a lawyer so they don’t even fight. And if they did choose to fight without an attorney then they would likely lose. The proceedings are technical and more often than not stacked against kids. Then there’s the district. The district has lawyers and access to witnesses. Other district staff form the judging panel and rule on the evidence that can be admitted. These families go up against a district with an obvious procedural advantage and access to unmatchable resources. It is not right that you need a doctorate to have a chance in these proceedings. That leads us to rule #2.

Rule #2: It’s a Black Boy

The more crazy the story, the more likely it is that a Black boy is going to be the one getting punished. Here are some cases and results that I’ve seen:
  • You were choked by school staff and they don’t even tell your parents: Black boy.
  • You are out of school for nine days on a five-day suspension and the secretary says you can’t come back: Black boy.
  • You are drawing and coloring posters in ninth-grade math all year: Black boy.
  • Your “class” consists of picking up garbage and dumping the school trash cans: Black boy.
  • You are getting expelled for something nobody has ever been expelled for: Black boy.
It’s always a Black boy.

Expulsions Matter

Expulsion is a scarlet letter. It will come up in lifelong background checks and it may affect your college admission and employment. Kate Weisburd illuminates these issues in her recent article for the Marshall Project, Ban the Other Box. Even though the U.S. Department of Education is encouraging the elimination of criminal background questions on college applications, most applications still ask about expulsions. And 3 out of 4 colleges or universities collect high school disciplinary information. The repercussions don’t stop at college admissions though. Expulsions can also affect employment in certain fields. Think about the stupid things you did or the things that you saw your friends do in middle or high school. It’s crazy that those adolescent mistakes can follow you for life while certain criminal convictions have started being excluded from college applications. [pullquote position=“right”]These specters do not follow all children equally[/pullquote]. Access to a lawyer favors certain people. Furthermore, Black and Brown children—particularly Black boys— face disproportionate punishment for the same offenses and are more likely to have the police called on them. The above article quotes one study:
Although discriminant analysis suggests that disproportionate rates of office referral and suspension for boys are due to increased rates of misbehavior, no support was found for the hypothesis that African American students act out more than other students. Rather, African American students appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons. Coupled with extensive and highly consistent prior data, these results argue that disproportionate representation of African Americans in office referrals, suspension and expulsion is evidence of a pervasive and systematic bias that may well be inherent in the use of exclusionary discipline.

A Right to Counsel

Some groups are predictably over punished. And those same groups have less access to resources to fight that injustice. The consequences of losing or conceding can be enormous for children. But there’s a simple fix to this problem. Students should have a right to counsel in these proceedings. And if they can’t provide one for themselves then free counsel should be provided for them. The school-to-prison pipeline starts with our inequitable school discipline system. Current procedures tend to be nasty, brutish and all too short. Rather than abandoning them in this game that is so often stacked against them, we should be protecting our most vulnerable students. We need to change the rules of the game.

Dirk Tillotson

Dirk Tillotson is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Great Schools Choices, which supports community-based charter school development and increasing access for underserved families. He has worked for over 20 years supporting mostly charter community schools in Oakland, New Orleans and New York City, and he’s even consulted on education issues in the Middle East. As a child, his parents moved their family to a high-performing school district where they were the first Black family on the block. The challenges of that experience embedded in him a desire to create academically high-quality schools where students don’t have to check their identities at the door. Dirk currently resides in Oakland, California, and blogs at Great School Voices.

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