Into New Rules for School
Trymaine Lee: Millions of America's kids are back at school. For most of them, that means learning online at least part of the time and maybe being in their real classroom a few days a week. And for many of these kids and their working parents, this new routine can be an overwhelming situation. (MUSIC)
When schools went remote back in the spring because of coronavirus, school discipline went remote, too. With Zoom as the classroom, we're now hearing about Zoom suspensions, where kids aren't allowed to log in for a period of time. There are virtual visits to the principal's office.
And, in Chicago, principals now have the power to temporarily block a student's access to email and all online programs if the student creates, quote, "an unsafe learning environment." In the actual classroom, there are new rules and new discipline for not wearing a mask or, in some schools, intentionally coughing or sneezing on somebody else.
Of course, schools need structure, and rules, and consequences to make sure the classroom is a place for learning where all kids and teachers can feel safe and respected, even when the learning is remote. But data from the federal Department of Education from before coronavirus show that students of color are more likely to face school discipline and harsher punishment, even when the infractions are the same.
Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled compared to white successes. The disparities start as early as preschool, even before most kids can tie their shoes. And these punishments have long-lasting consequences.
Adaku Onyeka-crawford: That leads to lower levels of high school completion, makes them less likely to go to college. So this is a really serious issue that affects our economy. It affects our future. It affects everything.
Lee: (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, how schools are approaching discipline remotely and why experts are worried that the same old punishment patterns will continue in new ways and impact students for years to come. Adaku Onyeka-Crawford is the director of educational equity and senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center. She studies discipline in schools and works with educators to come up with better solutions.
Onyeka-crawford: What we have heard and seen in different district policies are schools insisting on enforcing dress code or even requiring students to wear a uniform and explicitly doing things like banning sweats or pajama pants. And, full disclosure, I'm talking to you wearing my favorite athleisure right now.
We're just seeing some things like that, as well as, you know, requiring students to be out of bed and sitting straight up and at a desk, which might not be the case for every student. They might not have a desk to sit at. And also things like banning students from eating during class or drinking, but also forcing them to be on camera the entire time.
And these things were kind of not appropriate when students were already in school. You know, when students show up in a classroom, they show up as they are. And the focus should be on educating, whether they are wearing sweats or pajamas or something else a teacher deems inappropriate.
But it's especially inappropriate when the student is at home and is just trying to do their best to, you know, survive and thrive in these uncertain times. This doesn't encourage relationship building, which is what leads to student success. What it does is kind of enforce rigid and strict rules. It almost seems like a prison in your own home. That's what we're seeing in a lot of virtual schools.
Lee: What types of discipline are we actually seeing? How are they disciplining kids when they are breaking, you know, dress code rules or anything else?
Onyeka-crawford: We're seeing them, like, muted in the classroom or even locked out of virtual classrooms. There was a nine-year-old girl in California who was actually blocked from online learning because the school said she sent too many emails to tech support--
Onyeka-crawford: --which sounds ridiculous, you know? Obviously she was emailing tech support because she didn't understand how to use the platform. And to be kicked out for that reason seems super unreasonable. And that's on the lighter end of the spectrum. So we're also seeing in Massachusetts there have been actually a lot of families who have been reported because students didn't log in or teachers saw something that they thought was inappropriate during online learning.
Lee: But now, what's reasonable here? I mean, you got a lot of kids. These Zoom calls can be unwieldy at times, right? And you've got 15, 16, maybe 20 kids at home doin' their thing. Where is the line there?
Onyeka-crawford: In general, where the line is: Is if a student shows up, if a student logs in, teachers, educators should do their jobs and teach them and not kick them out of a classroom, not make them feel unwelcome. Because this is a difficult time. I just don't understand what anyone is wearing on a Zoom call, especially when all you can see are shoulders, how that affects the learning environment.
I don't understand, like, if a student is in bed, you know, maybe that's a comfortable place. Maybe it's the only place where they're able to have some peace and quiet 'cause they have brothers and sisters who are also virtual learning. You know, it's a difficult time for all students but especially those who are trying to learn in a way that's not familiar to them.
And I think that the line should be whatever students feel comfortable and confident doing to get through this time. We understand that school districts, this is a tough time for them too. And so I think if they give grace to families, we're willing to give grace to school districts and work through this together.
Lee: And so when we think about Black and brown students being adversely impacted by these rules and enforcing the discipline of these rules, what's the long-term impact there?
Onyeka-crawford: So the long-term impact is something called the school-to-prison pipeline, which basically instances where the criminal justice or juvenile justice system is involved that makes students become entangled in that system. There was a case in Michigan of a I believe she was 15- or 16-year-old girl named Grace who actually was sent to juvenile detention for not doing her homework, for not keeping up with online learning.
And she actually had a learning disability. She had special needs that weren't being attended to. And the judge in that case decided that the best way to get her to do her homework was to lock her up. And that is actually literally the school-to-prison pipeline. You are putting a girl in a youth prison for not doing her homework, something that I want to emphasize all students are struggling with.
There's another case in Colorado where a boy had, like, a Nerf gun on camera during his virtual learning. And they sent police to his house. And the one thing that we hear over and over and over is as a result of this, like, punishment for simply existing students say that they don't want to be in school.
It makes them feel embarrassed. It makes them feel like for the kids who are reported to foster care like they're putting their family in danger by even being in this system. And that leads to lower levels of high school completion, makes them less likely to go to college.
And if you have limited economic opportunities, you might become involved in underground economies, which might leave you subject to the criminal justice system. But even for students who don't end up in jail or prison, it just creates and perpetuates this cycle of poverty because you have less options because you didn't complete high school and you didn't go on to college. And we all know that that is, you know, tied to how much income you have the potential to make. This is a really serious issue that affects our economy. It affects our future. It affects everything.
Lee: You know, one thing that always seemed wild to me, and I have, I have to admit, you know, been on detention. I have been suspended in my (LAUGH) young life. And the one thing I always wondered was: You know, what is the benefit of actually keeping kids away from education, away from opportunities to guide them, teach them, and help them learn even from their mistakes? What are we doing here? Like, does that actually help, keeping kids from the education when they get in trouble?
Onyeka-crawford: It does not. Like I said, it makes them feel disconnected. You know, I (LAUGH) was talking a little bit from experience. I remember the first time I got a detention I had asked a question in math class. And I thought it was a relevant question that pertained to what we were discussing, but the teacher thought I had an attitude.
And so I got off lucky by just getting a detention, but there are so many students who will get suspended, or sent to in-school suspension, or things like that. And so it's a combination of implicit bias or racism that's baked into just the fabric of this country and then also having policies that allow for that bias and racism to creep in.
So one thing we haven't really talked about is schools that have physically reopened because we're also seeing a trend in criminalizing or punishing more things. So mask requirements. Basically, you know, not wearing a mask resulting in anything from a suspension to being even charged with a misdemeanor.
But students, if you talk to them and talk to them about your feelings and why masks are important, they'll wear them. And what our worry is, like a student shows up and rather than just saying, "Hey, that's not the right way to wear it. You know, pull it up."
But, you know, just doing that relationship building is more effective than just kicking a student out of class for not wearing a mask. And that's what we want to see. We want to see relationship building and to convey to students that this is a stressful time for them as much as it is a stressful time for teachers and we're gonna work through this together.
Lee: You mentioned what teachers are going through. These teachers are going in there every single day to educate our children, and they're facing down the weight of this pandemic as well. And I wonder how much of the tightening of the screws here is really aimed at trying to make sure we're creating a balanced structure, you know, a stable structure for the educators.
Onyeka-crawford: Yeah. Well, what creates a stable structure and environment for teachers is actually when students are happy, and they respect teachers, and teachers respect them. What people try to say and the reason why there's this, like, punitive approach is because they want to instill structure and they want to keep school safe. But we have evidence that shows that it doesn't make school safer.
And this whole adherence to rigid structures, you know, it's interesting that it's only applied in school districts that are majority Black or a majority LatinX. Because what it is saying is that, you know, Black and brown people can only be successful if they're in a box. We should let them have the growth and opportunity to grow into leaders, rather than, you know, putting them in this box.
Lee: (MUSIC) Stick with us. We'll be right back.
Lee: (MUSIC) You know, there's a lot of concern that this will be a lost year for students anyway. We have all the stress of COVID-19. We have this blended learning situation that just isn't working for a lot of kids. Then you have on top of that all the discipline concerns. What is your real fear coming out of this? I mean, not just a lost year, but what are the kinda long-term nightmare scenarios or concerns that we might see arising from the education that kids are gettin' and the discipline?
Onyeka-crawford: My fear is that there's disconnection times ten. One thing I really want to emphasize is the fact that COVID has hit Black and LatinX and Native communities especially hard. And these are also the communities that tend to be disproportionately disciplined.
And so my fear is that students show up and they're dealing with some, like, real stress and trauma. Maybe a loved one has died from COVID-19, or maybe a relative or a parent is an essential worker and they're worried about them getting, you know, COVID-19 and they show up to school and they take their mask down and then all of a sudden they're kicked out, you know? And then they cause stress for their family members in an already stressful time.
I just worry that it'll lead to greater disconnection. But I'm also hopeful that because we are hearing from this, we are seeing students and parents saying, like, "This is not right," and we're also hearing some educators saying things like, "You know what? That dress code policy, that's stupid. I'm not gonna enforce it."
I'm hopeful also that there are enough people who recognize that this is a trying time and the way we get through it is by, you know, recognizing this is a stressful time and giving the supports that are needed. There have been schools that have, you know, actually connected or have, like, online resources such as mental health counselors or school psychologists available for students who are going through this tough time. So we're seeing a little bit of, you know, rising to this Occasion.
Another thing that I kinda want to talk about is with the uprisings around George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Black Lives Matter, one promising thing that we've been fighting for for years is school districts cutting their contracts with school-based police.
And I think this is the perfect time to do that, when students aren't in school and the "school safety" false narrative, quote/unquote, isn't as dominant. There are school districts who had spent, like, millions of dollars on police officers that could and have been diverting that to mental health support or technological support for students. That is one thing that we are seeing that is very promising and we hope just continues more and more.
Lee: What can parents and even maybe older students do in this moment where we're seeing these disparities playing out to advocate for themselves? Like, how can they kinda harness the agency to stand up against the systems or their schools?
Onyeka-crawford: Well, I think that students, teachers should check out resources and really find, like, other community advocates in their communities who are pushing for these changes. Log in to a school board meeting and tell your story. One thing that I really do want to highlight, and if no one leaves this interview with anything else, is to highlight the fact that students, they're advocates.
They are the experts in their experiences and they know when they're being treated unfairly. And they also have solutions that are really workable. And so to any student listening, any parent listening, I want them to know that their voice has power and to let that be known, whether it's speaking to your principal, your superintendent, or finding your next school board meeting and going and sharing your story.
'Cause I think that, you know, when you keep it to yourself, it's just your story and nobody knows. But look at Grace. Like, the only reason why she was eventually let out of detention is 'cause, you know, her story was published and there was this huge outcry.
And I know that families feel like they have no power because, you know, look at the authority that is crushing down on them. But there are a lot more people who see these injustices and care about it. And the more that you talk and the more that you get that out there, the more allies you will find and the more likely change is to happen.
Lee: You know, over the years I've covered a lotta education issues. And it always seems to be the perfect confluence of racism, economic inequality, all the civil rights issues. And I wonder if now in the midst of all the debris, and social debris, and the COVID stuff that there's a real opportunity to change the way we view school discipline and the way we actually view education and how we deliver that education. Is now in some ways the perfect opportunity?
Onyeka-crawford: I think now is the best time to really rethink the types of schools that we want to have and what education looks like. We need books. We need teachers. We need guidance counselors. And that's been one, like, saving grace of this, that you get to take a step back and see the things that you actually need to make sure that kids are able to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally.
And so I think this is actually the perfect time to, like, take a look when you strip down education to the bare bones and see what it is that rises to the top as a need for students and what doesn't. And, you know, hopefully when we're out of this pandemic, you can take a look at that and say, "Okay, we were able to thrive without these punitive approaches to discipline. We were able to thrive without, you know, these referrals to law enforcement. And so that's what we're gonna continue to do going forward."
Lee: (MUSIC) Adaku, thank you so much for helping us understand just a little bit better. Thank you.
Onyeka-crawford: Thanks for having me on.
Lee: Adaku Onyeka-Crawford is the director of educational equity and senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday.