Four hours in an expulsion hearing gives you time to think. And afterwards, you are wrapped tight so it takes a little time to unwrap and you need to think more. I do these things too often as part of my work. Well I don’t get paid for it, so “work” may not be the right word… as part of my duty. Experience has taught me that two rules govern the vast majority of these proceedings, proceedings that can forever change a child’s life.
I have sat on both sides of the table, as a school leader disciplining students, and also a school board member hearing disciplinary appeals. Mostly I just get calls from families or educators, with stories, and show up to help them deal with school or district staff. And there are two simple rules that govern most every disciplinary process.
Rule #1- If you have a lawyer you win, if you don’t, you lose and probably don’t show up, conceding all of your rights, and having a scarlet letter branded onto your child’s permanent record
Rule #2- If it’s something really wacky, a Black boy is on the sharp end of the lash
The Realities of School Discipline
Schools regularly screw up the disciplinary process, district schools do, charters do, everyone does. Educators aren’t versed on the education code or even the specifics of their own policies, and there are almost always procedural or substantive issues. And honestly I want my teachers focused on teaching, not court cases.
My schools lose, schools I am squabbling with lose, if the family has a competent lawyer they almost always win. Like I said before, most families don’t even fight, and if they did fight alone, they would probably still lose given the technical nature of the proceedings, and in some ways how it is stacked against the kids. The district has lawyers, access to witnesses, other district staff form the judging panel and rule on the evidence that can be admitted. Those odds change drastically when you have a lawyer.
But it’s messed up that you need a lawyer to have a chance, and it’s obvious who has more access to lawyers and who doesn’t, which leads us to rule #2
Rule # 2—The more crazy the story it is the more likely it is to have a Black boy as the one the crazy stuff is happening to.
Your son was choked by school staff and they didn’t tell you- Black boy.
You are out of school for 9 days on a 5 day suspension and the secretary says you can’t come back-Black boy.
You are drawing and coloring posters in 9th grade math all year- Black boy.
Your “class” consists of picking up garbage and dumping the school trash cans- Black boy.
You are getting expelled for something nobody ever gets expelled for- Black boy.
It’s always a Black boy.
Expulsion is a scarlet letter, it will come up in lifelong background checks, and it may affect your college admission and employment. Kate Weisburd illuminates these issues in her recent article “Ban the other Box.”
While the U.S. Department of Education is moving towards the elimination of criminal background questions on the college applications, most still ask about expulsions, and 90% of colleges use that data in admissions decisions. It also may affect lifelong employment for more sensitive or security positions.
Think about the stupid things you did in middle or high school, or that your friends did and you were there or helped. It’s crazy that those mistakes can follow a child for life, while a crime is likely sealed.
And believe me those specters do not follow all children equally, who can get a lawyer and who can’t is not evenly distributed. At the same time Black and Brown children and particularly Black boys face disproportionate punishment for the same offenses and are more likely to have the police called. The above article summarized one study,
Although discriminant analysis suggests that disproportionate rates of office referral and suspension for boys are due to increased rates of misbehavior, no support was found for the hypothesis that African American students act out more than other students. Rather, African American students appear to be referred to the office for less serious and more subjective reasons. Coupled with extensive and highly consistent prior data, these results argue that disproportionate representation of African Americans in office referrals, suspension and expulsion is evidence of a pervasive and systematic bias that may well be inherent in the use of exclusionary discipline
A Right to Counsel
So some groups are predictably over punished, those same groups have less access to resources to fight that injustice, and the consequences of losing or conceding can be enormous. Students should have a right to counsel in these proceedings, not just a right to pay for counsel but a public defender, or other free counsel.
The school to prison pipeline starts early with school discipline. This is all predictably laid out before us. We need to change the rules of the game, and that means protecting our most vulnerable students rather than abandoning them in a game stacked against them, which tends to be nasty, brutish, and all too short.