“The presumption of innocence is the only civilized presumption”(Gillen, 2014). It is this presumption that is expected to follow a person into the courtroom, and it is for this reason we have courts of law and juries of our peers. Children of color are too often tagged with a brush labeling them as deviant and as troublemakers, before they even walk into the classroom, before the teacher has even set eyes on them. Kindergarten suspensions and expulsions are on the rise in many parts of the US with children of color being at least three times more likely to be suspended for what could often be deemed trivial matters. Louisiana saw 7,400 children in K-3 suspended in 2013-2014 for loose charges like “willful disobedience”, or as Andre Perry says, “being a kid”. A recent bill that would have seen out of school suspensions banned for Louisiana’s youngest children was met with resistance from teachers’ unions and other groups allied with K-12 education. The bill would have seen loose (and subjective) charges such as “willful disobedience” and “intentional disrespect towards teachers and principals” met with loss of privileges, referral to a counselor or social worker, or other in-school interventions. The bill’s sponsor, Sharon Broome, stated she wanted to stop the school-to-prison pipeline; opponents of the bill chose to see it as potential handcuffing, and loss of authority over their right to suspend. The argument put forward by the ‘pro-suspending of young children for non-violent offences camp’ is that some children need to be removed from the classroom so they do not ‘disturb other children’s learning’. It can be easily be argued that exclusionary discipline practices have a stronger impact on the learning of all children in the class than removing the child presenting with disruptive behaviour. Perry asks, “When kindergartens expel black kids what so they learn next?” What all children learn from discriminatory and exclusionary discipline measures is that a child of color will be unfairly treated by the system, no matter how young they are. They will be presumed guilty before even taking a breath in the classroom.
Last year The Washington Post reported that suspensions and expulsions are down in DC charter schools. Suspensions in early childhood, however, rose from 2.4% to 2.9%. A mealy mouthed response from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education recommended ending suspensions of pre-kindergarteners as “young children might not understand why they are being punished and might be acting out in ways within developmental norms”(emphasis added). It is difficult to digest this comment, and difficult to understand why more teeth are not in the game. Exclusionary punishment is meted out without any accountability, or any referral to experts in the field. It can take as little as one suspension to suck a child into the prison pipeline, but this doesn’t deter those so hard of heart they favor punishing kids who barely reach their waist. Most urban charter schools boast of ‘no excuses’ policy so that children can ‘rise above the odds’. The DC suspensions figures didn’t disaggregate for race but a quick glance at around ten DC charter school profiles show that their population is made up almost 100% of children of color, mostly African American. It appears that only black and brown kids need the ‘tough love’ approach. The myth of black inferiority is reproduced in these schools and the perpetuation of this myth is most dangerous and damaging (Horsford & Grosland, 2013). Black and brown bodies are viewed as something to control, rather than being viewed in their full humanity. The ‘no excuses’ brand is modeled on the ‘broken window’ theory of policing, a theory that is blatantly ineffective and that unfairly targets low-income communities of color. What’s more, ‘no excuses’ is an extreme extension of this theory (Goodman, 2013) as many of the behaviors the schools demand are not wrongs in themselves. It is not wrong to talk to a friend, it isn’t wrong to slouch, and it isn’t wrong to gaze into space. Yet charter schools such as KIPP punish children for the most minor of ‘infractions’ such as not following the teacher with his or her eyes. Falling asleep in class garners 10 demerit points, which triggers a detention, missing a detention may lead to a suspension. There is no suggestion of talking to the child to find out why they are so tired in school. ‘No excuses’ charter schools take an ahistorical view of the children in their care. A director of a DC charter school said suspension rates are higher at her school because of the population the school attracts-“kids who have struggled with incarceration, chronic truancy and other problems”. There is no deferral to understanding the child’s home life and to providing support that respects them as a human being. This would require a humanizing pedagogy rather than the colonizing model these schools use. When viewed through a historical lens there is clearly a paternalistic model in play, one that harkens back to the days of slavery. There is no true desire to improve the lives of children of color living in poverty, as profits come from keeping them down. From the youngest grades on children must comply at all times to directives from above (that make little sense for the most part). They have no control over the curriculum and are unable to properly interrogate subject matter. Individual effort is key, no collaborative learning, and often no speaking for long periods of time. If children fail to (respect authority) follow directives, public shaming may follow, such as wearing a school t-shirt inside out to show he or she needs to work on their behavior (if they want to get ahead). These children are nothing more than data points. A non-critical and ahistorical interpretation of educational statistics only serves to oppress students of color further (Horsford & Grosland, 2013). Even if charter schools could prove their methods help children do better on standardized tests, the people running these charter schools do not respect the humanity of each and every one of their students. The one (or two, or three) time/s a five year old is suspended for daydreaming may be all it takes to one day see him or her referred to by number and not by name.
Gillen, J. (2014). Educating for insurgency: the roles of young people in school’s of poverty. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
Goodman, J. F. (2013). Charter Management Organizations and the Regulated Environment: Is It Worth the Price? Educational Researcher, 42(2), 89–96. http://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X12470856
Horsford, S. D., & Grosland, T. J. (2013). Badges of Inferiority: The Racialization of Achievement in U.S. Education. In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. Routledge.