Zero Tolerance, Classroom Management, Race, & the Discipline Gap

Peace Family,

For this blog post, I want to discuss my thoughts on school discipline and classroom management within racial, schooling contexts.

Today in a course that I teach, I showed my students Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th, in class.  This is a powerful film–one that analyzes mass incarceration in the U.S. within a socio-political context of the War on Drugs, racial history in America, capitalism, and public policymaking. One main reason that I showed my students this documentary is so that they can understand how phrases of “zero tolerance”, “3 strikes you’re out”, and “cracking down/getting tough” create discourses that have seeped into public education policymaking.

It is well-known that in the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton was a champion for harsh punitive policies that sought to criminalize individuals based upon drug possession and usage.  One such policy was the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act of 1994, also known as the “Crime Bill”.  This bill really spurred mass incarceration forward that provided billions (BILLIONS!) of dollars into this prison-industrial complex system that is happening today.

I now want to talk about how Clinton’s Crime Bill paved the way for discipline disparities (i.e. the discipline gap) that now exist in many classrooms today, predominantly urban classrooms.  When I say “discipline gap”, I am referring to the racial disparity between Black and White students and the quantity and quality of treatment in which these students are disciplined.  In short, the discipline gap is so because Black students receive many more suspensions and experience harsher punitive treatment in schools, compared to their White peers.

Clinton’s Crime Bill became instrumental in the creation of this discipline gap because many school leaders began adopting this same mindset to punishing the “bad kids”, similar to the way Clinton punished the “bad people” in society.  Schools also began to adopt Clinton’s “3 Strikes You’re Out” paradigm as well.  In short, this means that if a student experiences multiple “offenses” during one academic year, this student may be suspended for an extended period of time (i.e. 5 or 10 days), may have multiple suspensions back-to-back, and then may eventually be expelled from a particular school altogether.  And also, just like Clinton’s Crime Bill impacted majority Black and Brown families/communities, the “3 Strikes You’re Out” also impacts majority Black and Brown students in public schools.

HOWEVER, I also want to bring your attention to the importance of classroom management. In the context of zero tolerance/3 strikes you’re out, I think the major question we should consider is: “How can teachers provide equitable access to students whose behavior is not up to par?” In other words, what can teachers to ensure that students who are “the bad kids” are still learning and still have access to the education they deserve?  I talked to my students today extensively about the importance of equity-based classroom management techniques.  First, we talked and discussed what is meant by classroom management and the steps that are necessary in writing a classroom management plan. Second, we also discussed various strategies that teachers can implement to create a positive learning environment for the students.  I also wanted my class to be aware of how negative classroom management procedures can have a deleterious impact on a child’s psychological and emotional development as a youth.  And lastly, I also talked about the importance of restorative-based practices as an alternative to punitive disciplining practices.

I realize that this is not an easy topic to talk about.  Many educators may feel stressed, burned out, and overwhelmed when teaching, let alone teaching in a classroom with a lot of personalities, differences, and disruptive behavior.  However, my position is that teachers still need to ensure that all of their students are still learning to the best extent possible, minus the detentions, suspensions, and expulsions.

~~Dr. Manning

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