As a civil rights attorney focusing on education equity, I work with parents and students who are fighting for access and fairness in educational services. However, the adversarial model of the law challenges me as I think about long-term solutions for our public education institutions. Simply put, when students, families, and educators are pitted against one another, nobody wins.
When Students Don't Win
With respect to the discipline process, it is clear that students, especially students of color, lose big across educational institutions. In the 2009-2010 school year, over three million children across the nation lost classroom time because of exclusionary discipline; enough children to fill every major league football and baseball stadium in the country. As an advocate taking on cases one-by-one, I continue to be haunted by troubling rhetoric that surrounds our young people as we justify cutting them off from educational services:
“We are making this decision because we have to hold our students accountable.” A necessary element of accountability is that people are in a relationship with one another and possess self-awareness of how their actions impact others. How does a student develop this self-awareness when they are disconnected and rejected from the school community for mistakes and poor judgment? Is this not precisely what we are supposed to be teaching them?
“We have to think about the other students.” So often in education, we must balance the interests of the many against the interests of the few. However, the danger comes when we narrowly focus our conversations around equality without a deeper understanding of equity. Even when we distribute resources evenly, the reality is that some of our students need more resources and supports just to be able to meaningfully access an equal opportunity for success. Unfortunately, too often discipline conversations are centered on separating struggling students from their peers. The effect of this is that we arbitrarily cut off all our students from important lessons of empathy and inclusion for others.
“We can’t do anything because this family does not care about their student’s education.” It is understandably very difficult to work with students when it seems their parents and families are not supportive. However, lack of parental engagement should not be a mark against the student. Our challenge is to meet students where they are and hope that we can help them rise above circumstances that are beyond their control.
“This student has forfeited his right to a public education.” This continues to be one of the most unsettling statements that I have heard coming from a school administrator to justify a decision to deny a student educational services. Does a child who is still learning who they are and how the world works possess enough knowledge and understanding to make this decision? For many students, these are the words that narrate experiences of broken promises and rejection. Many do not recover and instead fall prey to the school-to-prison pipeline which leaves them exposed to the criminal justice system, in a vicious cycle of poverty, and further disengaged from society.
When Schools Don't Win
When students are pitted against their teachers and administrators, a relationship is broken. Although there is a popular narrative that strict discipline has a deterrent effect on other students, it also has the residual impact of destroying trust between students and adults. This is one reason why discipline can often be looked to as an indicator of whether a student is at risk of dropping out. In many ways, my job is to look for the bad actors and protect students from unjust systems and practices. However, this is deeply complicated in the education system. Pressures involving increased performance standards, lack of resources, changing political regimes, labor disputes, and much more all underlie the educational ecosystem. I believe litigation to be one of the most destructive forms of intervention
and recognize it can be a necessary and effective tool to make meaningful change. There are times when the injustice is so great that nothing else will do. After all, it was Brown v. Board of Education that catalyzed the dismantling of racial separation in schools.
So, How Do We Win?
I remain steadfast in my belief that we can and we must win for our children and generations to come. For me, winning is about not only equipping our students with the tools they need to be productive in their careers, but also preparing our young people to join us in carrying the same torch for justice that we inherited from our ancestors and forefathers. My goal is to empower those who bear the brunt of societal inequities and whose potential may be the most challenging to access. As I take on the challenge of winning, I ground myself in these core values:
Operate from a fundamental understanding that we are a community. We are inextricably linked to one another and the successes and failures of our students are on us.
Commit to changing hearts and minds. Changing policy and laws is important and necessary work, but along the way, we must invest in the human spirit with the hopes that we are building a community that is committed to seeing the work through.
Do the work in love. As sappy as it may sound, I simply don’t see a win without it.