Deaning Girls Who Look Like Me
First period. Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays started the same for about a month in the Fall. Before I was even able to take off my coat, put down my bag, and start up my computer, she would walk into my office.
We had our lines down as if we co-wrote the script. She would storm in, throw her bookbag down, and sit in her “assigned seat.” She would yell through tears, “Miss I tried, I swear I tried, but she only comes at me!” I'd look at her and smile, “Well good morning sweetie, what happened now?”
She would be sent to my office, the dean’s office, so much that it should have appeared on her class schedule like an elective course. Her first infractions included eating in class, not participating, and quickly rose to disrespect and using “threatening hand gestures” towards her teacher. I held teacher conferences, parent conferences, class removals, and in house suspensions but still no resolution.
It did start to feel personal. How do I, as an adult, continue to work to bring mutual respect and resolution between this teacher and student? What can be said when it does look like she is "always coming for her”?
The statistics do speak for themselves. In 2015, the New York Department of Education was reported as suspending Black girls 10 times more than white students. A study out of Villanova University in 2013 showed “disciplinary cases for African-American females found most of them were punished under a subjective set of descriptors: ‘disobedience,’ ‘defiance’ and “‘improper dress.’”
As an African American woman, I have been accused of being “aggressive” when I was passionate about a topic or “scary” when I was acting in my authority as a dean. It saddens me that my Black female students have to discover early in life that they are not only responsible for their behaviors and actions, but how those actions are perceived and interpreted by others. In a school system comprised of 80% white educators, Black girls have to worry about how their white teachers feel.
Imagine my shock when the suspension rates at my school mirrored that of the nations! We were suspending Black female students disproportionately higher than their Hispanic classmates.
The reasoning for this was two-fold; one, a small population of our students struggling with their social and emotional health were getting into trouble, and two, the school is completely made up of minority students.
Until these demographics are changed and the mental health of our students is taken into account, these generalizations can no longer be made without digging deeper into the data.
Alongside this, our students need a curriculum that is more culturally responsive and is further taught by people who look like them. With more diverse teachers who would understand why they use their hands to talk, and why their hair made them late to school, and why their tone might be elevated when they feel like they are not being heard, these suspension rates would more mirror the reality in our public schools.
Until our public schools can become a safe space where all students feel supported, understood, and nurtured, we will continue to miss the mark.