When 5-Year-Old Black Boys Are Suspended at Higher Rates From School, It's Time to Talk About Racial Bias

Apr 11, 2018 12:00:00 AM


The latest Government Accountability Office analysis of school discipline policies has everyone talking about the disproportionate rates at which Black students are disciplined in school. It’s not surprising that Black students across the country continue to be disciplined more often and more harshly for behaviors similar to that of their White peers. We see it in our prisons. Why would we expect to see anything different in our schools? Unfortunately, Colorado is no exception. Despite representing 4 percent of Colorado’s population, Black males made up 12 percent of those receiving arrests or citations, according to the most recent report by the Department of Public Safety. What is surprising—and perhaps more concerning—is that a rising level of disproportionate school suspensions in Colorado begins with students as young as age 5. According to an analysis by Chalkbeat, “while Black boys make up up only about 2.3 percent of the state’s kindergarten to second grade students, they receive almost 10 percent of suspensions given in that age group.” The numbers are what they are, and why they exist has long been a part of the debate. What I know is that historically, [pullquote]the negative perception of people with black skin in this country has shaped an ongoing narrative and contributed to a life experience that is drastically different from those with white skin.[/pullquote] For young Black males, these implicit and sometimes overt biases often result in damaging visual depictions, grossly exaggerated descriptions, and negative labels that perpetuate the ideals of white supremacy. Remember this H&M ad featuring 5-year-old Liam Mango? Even if you ignore the fact that the White child is deemed a “survival expert” compared to the Black child who is not even considered human, there’s a whole history of racism to discuss. The fact is, the origins of comparing Black people to apes dates back centuries. The ape reference is now and has traditionally been used to depict Black people as unintelligent, dangerous, inferior beings. And whether intentional or not, these comparisons continue to exacerbate the negative ways Black males are viewed in society. Multiple studies and research continue to show that Black boys are often seen as being older and more dangerous than their White peers. Leaders of one such study wrote, “These racial biases were driven entirely by differences in automatic processing. In other words, no conscious thought was involved; Whites simply saw a Black male face and reacted in ways that indicated a heightened level of perceived threat. Even when the face was that of a 5-year-old.” So what do we do in Colorado and around the country to change the way Black students, and boys in particular, are perceived? We must acknowledge that the history of discrimination in our country has the ability to precondition even the most excellent and well-intentioned educators toward unconscious racial bias. So we must give them the tools to fight against it. With an intentional commitment to help teachers and leaders identify their biases and develop strategies to keep them in check, [pullquote]schools can improve their culture and increase achievement while decreasing disproportionate suspension rates and stanching the school-to-prison pipeline.[/pullquote] Having had the opportunity to participate in and facilitate these types of initiatives before, I know that these highly sensitive discussions can be challenging to implement and uncomfortable to engage in. But, there are ways to increase the positive impact of the investment.

Leader Involvement Is Key

First and foremost, having the leader of a district or organization champion the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) training sends a strong message straight from the top acknowledging that everyone has biases that affect how we engage with each other, students and families, and we can and will do whatever is needed to improve the experience of those in our community who have traditionally been marginalized. When leaders schedule, participate and mandate that every principal and senior leader participate in full-day DEI trainings throughout the year, it makes creating change more than a possibility, it’s inevitable.

Paying for Expert Training Is Worth the Investment

Discussions around race, White privilege and bias can be highly sensitive for everyone involved. Having these discussions facilitated by a third-party expert trained in DEI-related issues also creates a neutral foundation for everyone to engage. The facilitator's objectivity makes it possible to create a safe space for individuals to speak their truth, to challenge each other and to be challenged in a way that might not be as effective if the training is conducted by leaders within the organization.

Training That Can Be Scaled To Reach All Employees Benefits The Entire Community

Finally, trainings can be designed in a way that allows district or network leaders to transfer their knowledge and adapt it for their individual school teams. Tight-knit school teams can then be given the time and space to examine issues of bias and privilege unique to their school communities. As a result, [pullquote position="right"]the entire organization can commit to the hard work of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable[/pullquote], mitigating issues of bias before they surface and swiftly addressing those that do surface. Individuals learn to identify their own biases and because new levels of trust form between colleagues, individuals can support each other and educate each other throughout their own phases of personal development. Eliminating bias is not easy. But when schools have an ongoing commitment to support every employee’s ability to see themselves and their students through a new lens, progress can be made. If more schools and districts in Colorado could invest in similar approaches, perhaps we could start to change the lens through which we see all of our children, giving all of them a better shot at a great education—and taking a step toward ending racial prejudice in our society.

Chyrise Harris

Chyrise Harris was formerly the Chief Communications Officer for brightbeam, formerly known as Education Post, where she oversaw a variety of brand development, strategic communications and storytelling initiatives designed to shape the organization's reputation and impact. She joined Education Post to amplify the unique voice and experience of students, parents and teachers in schools across the country. She previously lead brand development, marketing and communications at STRIVE Preparatory Schools, one of Denver's largest public charter school networks. Prior to that she worked in the communications office at Denver Public Schools where she supported communications for one of the district's largest turnaround efforts. She also managed a portfolio of regional schools, using marketing and communications to support school choice and student enrollment. She built a foundation for communications at Siegel+Gale, a global brand strategy firm headquartered in New York. Chyrise is a product of public schools in Colorado and believes that every child—regardless of race, economic circumstance, or ability—deserves the opportunity to choose and access a free and exceptional education. Chyrise has a bachelor's in journalism and technical communications from Colorado State University and holds a master’s in global marketing communications and advertising from Emerson College in Boston.

The Feed


  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...

  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...