My son Jadon loved everything about school, until he didn’t.
He was eager to learn, read, write and make friends. At 5, he had already had varied life experiences. He was born in Germany, had traveled to Spain and moved to the South all before his first birthday. Throughout his travels, everyone, including his teachers, looked like him.
Last year, Jadon started kindergarten and it was the first time no one in his class looked like him. When I picked him up from school, Jadon would say to me, “I get treated differently.”
Although Jadon tended to be an active child, his previous teachers understood the nuances that made him, him. Because he squirmed on the carpet, he had to sit in a chair away from the group everyday.
By October, Jadon was being written up almost once a week.
Almost all of his referrals would result in a detention, and almost daily his recess privileges would be revoked—all for offenses such as accidentally bumping into someone in line, turning around too fast in the classroom and bumping into a friend or, the most insane referral of all, telling a friend they could not come to his birthday party, which was written up as “using unkind words.”
I did all I could to support him and love him but still I could see with every office visit, Jadon’s confidence dwindling and a waning desire to be at school.
I Was Not Going to Sit Back and Watch
As a strong advocate against the school-to-prison pipeline, I was not about to sit back and watch my own son fall victim to it.
My husband and I watched this play out, watched him be excluded, watched him in the office for minor infractions and tried to have meeting after meeting to get an understanding of the situation, yet in the meetings, we felt misunderstood as parents and silenced because of my position within the school.
The first meeting I had, I was told by his teacher that she wanted him to have a functional behavior assessment (FBA) conducted. I nearly lost it, but remained calm and asked why. She responded that he sometimes would stand up at his chair and answer questions without raising his hand.
I could not believe that, for those reasons, she wanted my son assessed for behavioral issues. This is something that happens often, as Black boys are overly identified for special education services when what they really need is culturally appropriate instruction.
I knew that there was a level of allowance given to students who looked like the dominant culture and there seemed to be no patience for children like my own who did not. My presence in the school pushed the conversation to these issues that many people were not aware even existed at all.
I was able to leverage my position and my voice to make changes for my son, and many others, by encouraging the district to look at restorative justice as a discipline policy by pointing out the Obama-era guidelines that discouraged zero-tolerance policies and encouraged positive behavior intervention strategies. I wonder what would have happened without my presence, without my sacrifice that resulted in a lot of backlash, without that courage, what would have happened?
I Shouldn’t Have to Do This Work
I was able to take their microaggressions and hold it to their face as a mirror for them all to see, but it was not easy and it should not take one person to do this work when our previous administration has done this for us.
Arne Duncan said the school-to-prison pipeline and discipline reform was the “civil rights issue of our time” and now, the new administration wants to tear down these liberties that every child, everywhere, every day should have access to no matter what they look like.
Who will stand up for the Jadons of this world without the protections to ensure that Brown and Black children are treated just and fair in systems that seek to tear them down and not build them up? Who will speak for Black and Latino children who are three times more likely than their White peers to be suspended for the same offense? Who will stand up for the disproportionate number of Black and Latino students in New York City who were arrested at school? Many of our children are not getting in trouble for violent crimes, but for willful defiance, such as chewing gum, drawing on a desk, talking back or not taking off a hat.
The story of Jadon is just beginning, and as we prepare for his first-grade year, I feel a knot in my stomach, and I would be lying to you if I did not tell you that I am worried about what he may face, especially if Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos moves forward with the plans to roll back the policies that kept children like mine safe.
I urge you to educate yourselves and encourage others to as well on school discipline policies, and I encourage you to seek restorative justice as opposed to exclusionary discipline practices. Children deserve it; Jadon needs it!