The presumption of innocence pt 2

Lawsuits have been filed with the Office of Civil Rights[1] regarding racial disparities in school suspensions but the tricky part is explicitly identifying racial abuse. It is no secret that implicit bias haunts many classrooms. As already mentioned, children of color are singled out for discriminatory punishment, yet a charge of violating that child’s rights is not always easy to prove. In 2014 the ex-Superintendent of Schools in Minneapolis placed a moratorium on suspensions of children in Pre-K, K and First grade when it was found that there was a dramatic increase in suspensions for this age group. Ex-Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson also sought to implement an initiative that would have seen potential suspensions of African American, Hispanic, and Native American children for non-violent offences brought before her office for review. This came after data showed that black students in Minneapolis Public Schools were sent home at a rate ten times that of white students. Johnson commented that far too often school officials are suspending students of color for a behavior that doesn’t lead to suspensions for white students. She states that the inequities exist not in student behavior, but in adult response. Michelle Alexander (2012) states that the genius of the current caste system is that it appears to be voluntary. Personal choices are to blame for personal downfall, but “never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices-often for less compelling reasons-are in fact going to college”. Less than two months after defending her decision in the Washington Post, Johnson abruptly resigned from her role as MPS Superintendent, a job she held for over four years. Despite what appears to be overwhelming evidence of racial bias, and despite the OCR examining disproportionate discipline policies in the MPS, people opposed to this initiative claimed that the only way to reduce racial disparities would be if school officials were more lenient towards students of color and tougher on white students. They were able to sidestep the part where white students already stay in school for offences that would see students of color sent home. Opponents also said that this policy would be unfair to whites, sidestepping the fact that systemic racism leads to incredibly unfair policies for children of color. The needs of white people take precedence over the needs of those less advantaged, and whiteness is seen as the ‘normal and neutral measure by which all other groups are defined and compared’ (Horsford & Grosland, 2013). Bernadeia Johnson sought dialogue regarding disparate disciplinary measures, not accusations of guilt. Without dialogue there can be no understanding of individual student need: without dialogue too many children are viewed simply through an essentialist lens. Critical race theory decries essentialism and the belief that all people of a particular group think and act in the same way (Ladson-Billings, 2013). Johnson sought to upend education policy that simply maintained the (racist) status quo. For this she herself was unfairly disciplined, with blame for her departure apportioned to her inability to raise test scores, rather than opposition to a push for racial equity in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Policy shortfall in regards to addressing racial inequities in schools is sorely depicted in the examples discussed here. It is disturbing that attempts to curb suspensions of our youngest children are met with resistance, and disturbing that attempts to balance the playing field when it comes to suspensions by race are also met by resistance. To call opponents of these policies racist would most likely offend their sensibilities. In a ‘post-racial’, ‘colorblind’ era the worst thing anyone can be called is racist, yet racist abuses continue. If the reasons for disparate exclusions from school (inclusions in prison) “can be blamed on their culture, poor work ethic, or even their families, then society is absolved of responsibility to do anything about their condition”(Alexander, 2012). It doesn’t seem to matter that the school-to-prison pipeline is explicitly addressed (Broome in Louisiana); nor that it’s pointed out that children of color are punished for behavior that white children are not punished for (Johnson in Minneapolis). Schools and districts are not held accountable for exclusionary policies that target children of color. In 2014 California became the first state in the nation to ban the use of suspensions and expulsions for “willful defiance” for children in K-third grade. Prior to the signing of this bill, 10,000 children in these grade levels alone were issued with suspensions for this particularly loose charge. It was hoped the bill would reach into the higher grades but Jerry Brown stated that he could not support “limiting the authority of local school leaders”. Just as Loretta Lynch says the US government should not require police to report fatal shootings of civilians, citing federal overreach, the needs of local school (police) officials to exclude and punish takes precedence over accountability measures that may engender racial justice.

The school-to-prison pipeline is real, and with suspensions and expulsions of our youngest children on the rise we have a moral and ethical imperative to stop this in its tracks. The 6th annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout is taking place right now-October 3 to 11, and in the Bay Area an “Education not Incarceration” convening happened for the first time on Monday the 5th of October. Mobilizing of this kind “highlights the need for regional and multi-issue approach to ending the school-to-prison pipeline”. We have strength in numbers, and we have strength in recognizing the need for the rehumanization of education through decolonizing pedagogy that sees all children presumed innocent, and that sees all children in the brightest light possible.

[1] More than 580 complaints from parents, students or other individuals were received in fiscal year 2013-2014. These complaints regarded possible civil rights violations involving school discipline systems.

Coleman Advocates:

Dignity in Schools:


Alexander, M. (2012). The new Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, N.Y.; Jackson, Tenn.: New Press ; Distributed by Perseus Distribution.

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.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2013). Critical Race Theory-What It Is Not! In M. Lynn & A. D. Dixson (Eds.), Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education. New York, N.Y.: Routledge.


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