Black Boys in Crisis: Alternatives to the School to Prison Pipeline

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

If removal and zero-tolerance policies don’t help black male students in the long term, what is the best way to discipline students when they do misbehave? In this article, we will discuss two of the most effective ways.

Early Intervention

The best answer is found long before the moment when discipline is necessary. Prevention and intervention tactics need a place in all teaching pedagogy, and those tactics must adjust for demographics–and individual students. Schools need to offer robust programs for at-risk students that include mentoring from older students, after-school tutoring, and customized learning. If all of this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.

Technology is making the customized-learning portion much easier, though, and allows teachers to analyze student performance in a streamlined way long before problems arise. And as simple as it sounds, teachers must approach behavior problems with students in the same way they approach academic problems—with an analytical eye that looks for the best solution that will benefit everyone. Notice that I didn’t say the easiest or best for all the other students in class; inclusiveness is often a difficult process. I said the best solution for everyone: teacher, peers, and individual students. The benefits to keeping a child in class, or at least in school, far outweigh emotionally kicking a child out of class or recommending suspension.

In-School Mediation

Zero tolerance should have no place in the American educational system. After all, isn’t it an American right to remain innocent until proven guilty? When children are immediately kicked out of schools and funneled into the criminal justice system, for minor infractions, we are essentially telling them that their reasons don’t matter. Keeping kids on school grounds and handling disciplinary matters in-house is preferable to removing them. School is where all American children belong—not the prison system.

There are also some local school districts working to reverse the tide of zero tolerance through in-school mediation programs. The Los Angeles Unified School District is probably the best example of this in action. The district has implemented a stronger counseling referral program that keeps students inside school walls to work through infractions such as petty theft and vandalism, rather than sending them through the juvenile justice system. Even the state of Texas, once known for its incredibly harsh zero tolerance policies, has softened in recent years, passing a bill that encourages school administrators to really weigh the options before referring kids to discipline outside the school walls.

These “common sense” approaches to student behavior problems are usually accompanied with training that addresses the root of the issue and attempts to resolve the conflict before any disciplinary measures are taken. The five core elements of common sense approaches to in-school resolutions include relationships, respect, repair, responsibility, and reintegration.

These initiatives are less about handing down punishment and more about empowering students to find solutions to what may be holding them back or causing them to act out. In this way, a more collaborative approach to resolution happens – holding students accountable while depending on teachers to go to these common sense approaches first. At Aurora West High School in the greater Denver area, suspensions dropped 70 percent in the three years following a switch from zero tolerance to common sense disciplinary approaches—and expulsions dropped to zero.

As the teaching profession evolves to be more tolerant of different learning styles, educators should also be trained in different approaches to behavior problems. Zero tolerance is a blanket policy that is simply too rigid too work for an entire student body. To really put disciplinary policies in place that actually work for all students, teachers, and administrators must shift to a system that favors conflict resolution while eliminating the need for outside interference.

Instead of a zero-tolerance stance, more schools should encourage in-school mediation. Allow students to be themselves in an environment that facilitates getting to the root of problems, instead of handing out disciplinary action.

Can you think of any additional ways for educators to discipline black boys when they misbehave or prevent misbehavior from occurring in the first place?


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