By Zakiya Sankara-Jabar • Director Racial Justice NOW!

Recently, a 14-year-old, black middle school student in Akron was suspended for five days for buying a mixture of Kool-Aid and sugar. A teacher called it “crack,” and the suspension happened in spite of school officials identifying the “substance” in the bag was not crack. This year, Congress is working to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which expired in 2007. It is crucial that we take federal action to end overly punitive discipline practices and ensure that our schools are safe places where all young people are treated with dignity and equipped to succeed.

Racial Justice NOW! is working with the national Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition of over 95 organizations from 24 states including the District of Columbia, to ensure that all students have the right to a safe and quality education and treated with dignity. This means reducing school suspensions and expulsions, eliminating school-based arrests and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. According to national data, African-American children are suspended at three times the rate of their white peers despite data showing that they do not misbehave more frequently or severely. Nowhere is this more relevant than here in Ohio, where an unprecedented number of black youth are suspended and expelled. In fact, black youth account for more than 50% of all out of school suspensions and expulsions.

There are many ideas about how to reform our schools. There are many theories about what constitutes good teaching. One thing is clear: students cannot receive quality education if they are pushed out of the classroom. Moreover, quality education must include and reflect the community and family a student comes from. We need to re-invest in our students’ neighborhoods, in the local community-based organizations working on the ground, and we need to insist that parents and students themselves play an active and vital role in education.

Education does not happen in a vacuum; students are not empty vessels to be filled. Students come to school with histories, opinions, strengths, flaws and traumas. When we create a zero tolerance environment, students are expected to leave behind their culture and community. These policies tell students: we do not expect you to succeed.

As the ESEA reauthorization discussions continue, Racial Justice NOW! strongly supports the continued role of the federal government in holding states accountable for providing quality educational opportunities and outcomes. ESEA should rely on multiple measures, including school climate and graduation rates, to gauge success and provide supports, not sanctions, to help schools improve.

We urge Congress to target federal funding and technical assistance towards inclusive proven discipline best practices, such as Restorative practices and Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS), and support local community-based organizations in partnering with schools and districts to implement community-responsive, trauma-sensitive and culturally-appropriate discipline best practices.

Including these provisions will help teachers and administrators create safe school climates for everyone who walks through their school doors. Including these provisions help students, like the 14 year-old black girl suspended for bringing Kool-Aid and sugar to school, stay in the classroom instead of missing valuable learning. We need policies that respect the diversity of learners and use creativity, innovation, and care to help ALL students excel.

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