Home News Center Anti-Racism Resource: Why Transforming Schools from Punishment to Promise is a Racial Justice Imperative.

Anti-Racism Resource: Why Transforming Schools from Punishment to Promise is a Racial Justice Imperative.

February 15, 2023
Policy Platform Written by Melissa C. Goeman; Summary by Courtney M. McSwain

Image Text: Why Transforming Schools from Punishment to Promise is a Racial Justice Imperative

Snapshot from NJJN’s Policy Platform: “Mapping Transformative Schools: From Punishment to Promise

Young people deserve a positive school environment that honors who they are, pushes them to do their best, helps them when they encounter challenges, and extends grace when they miss the mark.* The need for this type of positive school environment is even more urgent given the heightened vulnerability of our nation’s youth since the onset of the pandemic. Too often students encounter a type of “gotcha” school environment; rather than seeking to help them achieve their highest goals, students feel as if they are being surveilled and then penalized heavily for stepping out of line in the slightest way.

Many Black, Brown, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and disabled students experience a system which holds up a magnifying glass to their actions and then punishes them more harshly than other students, who often get a pass for the same type of behavior. This type of environment causes young people stress, trauma, and alienation, detracting from their ability to learn and grow. Ultimately, it can lead students to become so disaffected that they drop out of school or are forced out through suspension, expulsion, or arrest.

NJJN turned to young people for answers on how we stop this destructive pipeline and put children on a more positive path. Below, in a snapshot from “Mapping Transformative Schools: From Punishment to Promise” we highlight the racial justice imperative for a transformational culture shift to create an environment where all students feel honored and supported by teachers, staff, and school administration. 

Surveillance & punitive treatment disproportionately impacts youth of color.

Punitive practices in response to youth behavior in school – such as zero tolerance and other exclusionary discipline policies, disproportionately target Black, Brown, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and disabled youth and have become the norm in too many schools. These policies lead to students being pushed out of school by creating a hostile environment, removing students through suspensions and expulsions, and sending students into the youth legal system in what is commonly known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Young people we talked to discussed the wide use of suspensions and expulsions for minor infractions, differences in suspensions and expulsions based on race and gender, and the lasting harm to students when they are suspended. We urge school systems and states to invest in positive, whole child learning environments through the many mechanisms detailed above and end the use of punitive practices. 

Disparities in Suspensions and Expulsions

  • Students of color as a whole, as well as by individual racial/ethnic group, do not commit more disciplinable offenses than their white peers — but Black, Brown, and Indigenous students in the aggregate receive substantially more school discipline than their white peers and receive harsher and longer punishments than their white peers receive for like offenses.

  • Students with disabilities are approximately twice as likely to be suspended throughout each school level compared to students without disabilities. The disparities are the worst for Black students with disabilities.

  • In 2017–18, Black students were suspended and expelled at rates that were more than twice their share of total student enrollment. Indigenous and Hispanic students were suspended and expelled at rates that were higher than their share of total student enrollment as well.

Racial bias leads to students of color of color receiving less academic encouragement. 

Many of the students NJJN spoke to discussed school climates in which Black and Brown students were discouraged from taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes and treated more harshly for their behavior than white youth. Young people in our focus groups also discussed school climates where girls were treated more harshly for certain offenses, such as dress code violations, than boys.

Isabella S.L., age 19 from North Carolina, described a school environment in which bias played a significant role in the way teachers and counselors acted towards and viewed the capabilities of the students. For example, her sophomore English teacher told her that she was not going to college and told his ESL students that he legally has to pass them. When Advanced Placement (“AP”) students acted out he nicely told them to quiet down but he yelled at students in honors classes if they did the same thing. This bias impacted Isabella and other students’ achievement. Isabella’s school counselor discouraged her from taking more rigorous classes and recommended that she not “load up” on AP classes so she only took one. When she later wanted to add another AP class, both the teacher and her school counselor questioned her ability to handle it. She learned that other Black and Brown students had been discouraged from taking more advanced classes as well. As a result, there was a lack of diversity in the AP classes leading to an achievement gap at the school. She also found it socially isolating to be one of the few students of color in her advanced classes.

Further, racial bias often intersects with other systems of structural discrimination, like misogyny, to create particularly harmful environments for girls of color. National data shows that Black girls are 5.5 times more likely and Indigenous girls are 3 times more likely to be suspended from school than white girls. In addition to these barriers, girls of color are more likely to attend under-resourced schools that are not culturally competent or personalized to their needs or interests, which negatively affects their educational opportunities and future earnings. Evidence shows that Black girls are often disciplined for minor or subjective offenses, which may be informed by implicit biases and race- and sex-based stereotypes.

Schools can develop a fair and equitable school climate by creating culturally-affirming and linguistically responsive learning environments that foster a sense of inclusion and where all children feel welcome. It is also essential to for school systems to collect and share data on suspensions, expulsions, and arrests disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, LGBTQIA+ identification, and disability. Otherwise, it is difficult to know whether a school has a pushout problem, the extent of any problem, which groups of students may be disproportionately impacted, and whether progress is being made. Good data can open the public’s eyes to a problem that is more easily dismissed when there is only anecdotal evidence.

Lack of mental health access can lead to criminalization of youth of color.

The American School Counselor Association recommends that schools have a minimum of one counselor per 250 students — over 90 percent of the nations’ schools fail to meet this ratio. The same ratio is recommended for school psychologists yet 5.4 million public school students (twelve percent) attend districts with no psychologists. The situation can be worse for Black and Brown students — in New Jersey, a recent study found that access to mental health school staff declined for Black and Brown students over the last decade while access increased for white and Asian students.

Research has shown that school-based mental health providers can lead to a number of positive outcomes including: improved attendance rates; improved academic achievement and career preparation;, improved graduation rates; fewer disciplinary incidents; and lower suspension and expulsion rates. Mental health support is particularly needed now as mental health challenges for adolescents have risen dramatically in recent years. School Based Health Centers have been useful in reaching Black and Brown youth — on average, approximately two-thirds of students at schools with access to SBHCs were Black or Brown. Youth of color have also been found to use SHBC services more frequently than other community health services.

The Way Forward

NJJN’s central recommendation is for a holistic transformational culture shift to create an environment where all students feel honored and supported by teachers, staff, and school administration. School systems must prioritize investing in inclusive, trauma-informed, culturally responsive schools that create a supportive and connected school climate and community. They must end the practices and policies that lead to the easy criminalization of children, particularly Black, Brown, Indigenous, disabled, and LGBTQIA+ students.

Read our full policy platform for an extensive list of transformative school recommendations and examples of promising approaches policies from across the country. 

>>Download full policy platform

*Please refer to the full policy platform, “Mapping Transformative Schools: From Punishment to Promise” for source material.

<- Go Back