On Jun. 30, the Excellence and Advancement Foundation and Texas Appleseed are co-hosting a teach-in about suspensions in the Austin Independent School District for minor student conduct violations, such as horseplay, disrupting class, and not meeting the dress code. The teach-in is intended to empower parents and the community at large about how to advocate to teachers and administrators on behalf of children of color, while providing a forum in which parents can share their own experiences.
“Most of the offenses are misbehaviors that are age-appropriate and part of normal child development, but children of color are targeted more harshly,” says Dr. Courtney Robinson, a community organizer with the Excellence and Advancement Foundation. “These behaviors include talking back to a teacher, scuffling with other children, not following the dress code, and before Texas Appleseed got involved, truancy.”
The Texas law decriminalizing truancy took effect in September of 2015. Previously, unexcused absences could result in criminal penalties, even though one way to accrue an absence was through three instances of tardy, by even one or two minutes. Families dropping-off children at school a couple of minutes late on multiple instances could face truancy charges, despite kids being at school daily.
While families of any color might find it difficult to arrive at school on time, for one reason or another, some disciplinary measures fall along color lines.
“Studies have shown that by the time Black boys reach third grade, teachers treat them as young men, find them more threatening than their peers, and say things about them needing to be more mature in response to behaviors that are considered normal for other children their age,” Robinson says.
Studies have shown that by the time Black boys reach third grade, teachers treat them as young men.
According to non-profit news organization The Marshall Project, Black students in the U.S. are three times as likely to be expelled from school as white students, and students with disabilities are twice as likely as other students to receive out-of-school suspension.
“When kids start to get suspended, a routine of being suspended and being expelled often begins, and then the next step is alternative school. And once they are in alternative school, they may or may not be able to keep up with their work,” continues Robinson. “Then we start to see kids drop out of school, and then their choices for life are limited in terms of employment and what they can do. And there’s the dynamic where the students begin to act on the messages that they’ve received, that they are a ‘troublemaker,’ ‘that they get in trouble.’”
Robinson reports that during the 2013 to 2014 school year, 30 percent of Texas school suspensions were children in pre-kindergarten through the second grade, and that the suspensions are not required by law, but at teachers’ discretion. The goal of the Jun. 30 teach-in is to get the Austin community involved in ending suspensions in pre-kindergarten through second grade.
Community effort, national implications
Similar to adult counterparts who have been separated from society in U.S. prisons, school suspensions separate children of color from the mainstream.
“Black and brown children make up more than 40 percent of the preschool suspensions around the U.S.,” Robinson says. According to the NAACP, 1 million of the 2.8 million individuals currently incarcerated in the U.S. are Black, and together, people who are Black or Hispanic make up 58 percent of the U.S. prison population.
The upcoming event, Suspended Childhood: Teach-in on the School to Prison Pipeline, is a local part of a larger national discussion about the complex effects of systemic separation. The “school to prison pipeline” isn’t intended to suggest that schoolteachers or administrators intend to harm students. It also isn’t intended to suggest that students are being removed from schools for committing crimes and then being placed in prisons.
Rather, the “school to prison pipeline” is a way of saying the U.S. separates from society people of color at all life stages, beginning with preschool. It is meant to show that the same mentality that administers American prisons administers public schools in the U.S.
The ‘school to prison pipeline’ is a way of saying the U.S. separates from society people of color at all life stages, beginning with preschool.
“This is all very complicated. Our schools and prisons were designed for specific populations, and it’s taking a lot of time to undo the damage,” Robinson says.
Robinson, a graduate of Howard University, is a Dallas native who, along with her husband and two children, has lived in Pflugerville since 1999. Robinson worked with formerly incarcerated students while employed at a community college in California (several of whom “were some of the smartest people I ever met,” Robinson says), and then spent 10 years in educational and non-profit positions before earning a graduate degree and volunteering with the Texas Youth Commission.
In addition to founding the Excellence and Advancement Foundation in Pflugerville and working with the greater Austin area, Robinson is an adjunct professor at Huston-Tillotson University, a historically Black institute of higher education.
“School suspensions for age-appropriate behavior is a community problem; this is not a parent problem,” Robinson says. “Just as our entire community is impacted when someone is incarcerated: You’re taking away an able-bodied person who could otherwise contribute to the economy, and it affects employers who need workers.”
“Our communities are stronger and healthier when everyone is taken care of, when our kids’ well-beings are intact and whole. As a community, we should be looking to send our children whole into the world,” she says.
As a community, we should be looking to send our children whole into the world.
Robinson adds that Austin, because it is the seat of the state legislature, is a prime location for community activism to address separation through unreasonable suspensions. She points out that Austin is a trendsetter for change, noting that the Austin City Council in March made Austin the first Texas city to ban from most employment applications boxes to mark if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime.
“You still have to pass a background check, but now formerly incarcerated individuals have a chance to work because their applications aren’t automatically thrown out,” she says. “And now Houston and Dallas are evaluating their applications.”
Robinson believes that Austin residents can harness that same potential to change school disciplinary policies in Texas, and so the nation.
“Texas impacts the nation because we have huge textbook orders, and Texas is the second largest state in terms of educating children of color. So, if we can’t get education right in our state with all of our size and resources, then what other state will try?”
Tips for parents and advocates
Robinson advises that when a parent is armed with information and can speak the language of the school system, it can make a lot of difference. She offers the following tips for parents:
- Always know when your child has been disciplined. Because schools don’t notify parents of every instance, Robinson recommends asking your kids each day if they were disciplined, letting them know that there may be consequences, but you need to know in order to help them.
- Meet with each teacher or person who refers your child for disciplinary action.
- If problems continue, meet with the school administrator and ask for your child’s disciplinary record.
- Let the schoolteachers and administrators know that you are on their team, advises Robinson. “Let them know that you want to send your best child to school, and you want to be sure that your best child is sent back.”
Schools often assume that parents don’t care, says Robinson. Showing schools that parents do care, through presence and participation, can help achieve more positive outcomes.
The Excellence and Advancement Foundation hosts the Black Leadership Academy, for children in grades three through 12. The academy meets two Sundays per month, and students can join anytime between September and December, and January through May.
The foundation also offers the Awesome Activist Leadership Camp, which helps sixth through twelfth graders learn during the summer about being community engaged leaders, food justice advocates, first responders, animal activists, and other community activist roles. The programs are offered on a sliding payment scale.
Another foundation program is the Re-Entry Project for people who are being released from incarceration. Program participants can receive help with social services, resumes, and learning about applying for school and financial aid.
Suspended Childhood: Teach-in on the School to Prison Pipeline will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Jun. 30 at the Millennium Youth Entertainment Complex at 1156 Hargrave Street. Visit the soulciti events page for more information.
This post is republished from an earlier date.