As a 5-year old kindergartner, I was threatened with my first suspension for being talkative and “disruptive” in class by my almost 70-year-old White teacher. Luckily, my grandmother and our Black principal knew how to handle kids coming from nursery school into a new classroom setting. Instead of being suspended, I was transferred into a class with a Black teacher where I did just fine. In middle school, I was in a gifted and talented program doing well academically, but struggling with self-confidence and bullying. I recall during an English class play recital, I was being teased for being nerdy and overweight and I screamed out loud that “I wish I could have killed myself.” That was the first time I remember dealing with mental health and trauma. In high school, I was one of only two Black students in any AP course, and despite being in the National Honor Society, I, along with other classmates of color, was encouraged to apply to local colleges. None of this should come as a surprise. I was, after all, a Black boy in America journeying through a flawed education system without the necessary academic, behavioral and mental health supports needed to comprehensively thrive.
To suspend a 5-year old child in 1995 was controversial, but today it is sadly commonplace. Minority students are
disproportionately punished at early ages, which contributes to systemic behavioral and disciplinary issues in school and into adulthood. In addition, we have seen school districts denied funding to meet
the mental health supports and wraparound social services needed to allow minority students succeed. And in the small funding that has been provided to schools, a portion, some have suggested, should be used towards the
arming of teachers to address school shootings. Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration continue to move steadily towards
a rollback on civil rights protections, despite the mission of the Department of Education to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Part of this rollback has included the reduction of compliance reviews and expediting of cases under review. In response, earlier this summer,
the NAACP sued the Department for its handling of civil rights investigations. In order to execute its mission, the Department, and the country as a whole, must finally accept that education is in fact a civil right. By continuing to investigate cases of systemic and implicit bias, the Department can create a framework for how schools should respond to civil rights infringements of protected students. This could also serve to educate administrators, teachers, parents and communities on how to prepare students for a multicultural, interconnected world and the consequences of sustaining old behaviors and habits. If we were to do that, we might actually be on the path of truly making America great.
Karlton A. Laster is the former Assistant Director of Government & Community Relations for Case Western Reserve University. A native Clevelander, Karlton has a B.A. English and M.A. public policy and administration from The Ohio State University and Northwestern University, respectively. Previously, Karlton served as Special Assistant for Regional Collaboration for Cuyahoga County, where he ...