Trump and DeVos Should Know What It Means for Our Students of Color When They Remove Discipline Guidance

Dec 18, 2018 12:00:00 AM

by Estella Owoimaha-Church

The 2014 federal school discipline guidance—which the Federal School Safety Commission today said should be scrapped—isn’t just about policy and data, it’s about Gee. This past school year, when Gee first walked into my 10th-grade English intervention classroom, I knew he had been in trouble before, with teachers warning me about him, prior school suspensions, and even his attitude. Each day he entered the classroom determined to get sent out: he made rude or silly comments and roamed the room in the middle of the lesson. I warned him he’d never get sent out of my room and we had a dialogue about his reading level, which was below fifth grade. Eventually, he learned two things: (1) I had more patience than he had antics and (2) I cared about him. One day, much later in the school year, I was out for the day. Upon my return to work, students warned me, “Gee got suspended.” The next day, Gee returned to school, and we talked outside. “Gee, what happened?” He said, “Miss, I had to figure out a way to help my mom pay bills; I’m too young for a work permit and someone offered me an opportunity.” “Gee, I’m your opportunity. This class. Us.” This young man was willing to make a major sacrifice to support his family. To my knowledge, [pullquote position="right"]no adult in his life had asked why or sought to help him solve the issue.[/pullquote] Watching me cry, he began to cry. “Miss, please stop crying. I swear nothing like this will ever happen again.” “And I will do everything I can to help you figure out how to pay the bills,” I said. Fast forward to the final grading period, Gee had a D in my class, but his reading level had skyrocketed above grade level. And while he had to work on some studying skills, I was confident that he’d be ready for the 11th grade. His final writing task—a poem—read: “I want to make money/ Money that I can use to build up my community/ I want to be a humble man/ That can take care of friends and family.” Gee, and young Black and Brown men like him, have been underserved throughout their primary and secondary education, live with low socioeconomic status, experience identified learning challenges, and are sometimes English learners. Gee represents a significant portion of the youth we are referencing when we discuss the effects of “willful defiance,” zero-tolerance policies, suspension rates, dropout rates, and the school-to-prison pipeline. [pullquote]Sending him out of class is a non-solution. Suspending him is a non-solution. Yet, these have been the two most-used “interventions” since he was young.[/pullquote] Gee, and youth like him, want badly to be “good.” Unfortunately, this system and its failures—their experiences—have led them to build up hardened shells of defense mechanisms. Why am I writing about this now? Because a significant step forward for our kids, in the form of 2014 federal school discipline guidance, is under threat of being jettisoned. The guidance helps schools to understand the requirements of federal civil rights law prohibitions against discrimination, and provides them with the tools to ensure they are in compliance. The federal school discipline guidance affects the way in which young men like Gee interact with school and authority figures. There are many alternatives to school suspensions—the most effective alternative being unconditional love and empathy from teachers and other school staff. I am dismayed that Secretary DeVos and her Federal School Safety Commission are saying the guidance should be jettisoned, and I urge the secretary to reconsider, and do the right thing for Gee and so many children like him—and maintain, without weakening, the 2014 federal school discipline guidance.

Estella Owoimaha-Church

Estella Owoimaha-Church is a secondary educator in Southern Los Angeles, where she serves an ethnically diverse population of English learners, students with special needs, and traditionally underserved youth. Estella is also honored to have been named a top-50 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize.

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