Saturday, June 22, 2013

Does This Post Make Me Look Racist?

There's an essay at another guy's blog this morning about suspensions. He's in a district struggling the same way the Syracuse City School District is. The suspension rates for minority students are high. This sort of thing is in all the papers and there are committees forming, action plans being drawn up, and lots of meetings happening to discuss the situation. There are calls of racism and discrimination going around and around. It's a big mess.

The problem comes down to a couple of things: one, there are two few adults in school buildings because budgets are the gods of our idolatry, and two, minority students from poor households often disrupt classrooms. I know, that last bit makes me a racist, but live with it for a moment and see if we can get to the bottom of the page.

I teach alternative education (not in Syracuse) and know that in order to get anywhere with learning, the classroom has to be a safe place. It can't just seem safe, it must _be_ safe. In order to create a safe classroom, I work hard to enforce a code of behavior. I don't allow boys to say disparaging things to women or vice versa. I don't allow people to talk behind other people's backs. We use appropriate language. And threats or other abuse are an immediate ticket out the door.

Many of my minority students have been taught not to back down, as they put it, when someone gives them shit. They have been taught this by parents, guardians, siblings, and maybe even whatever media they watch and listen to. That's fine for them to have been taught that, but it doesn't make for a safe classroom to have people going bat-shit crazy when someone looks at them the wrong way. I have sat in parent meetings during which mothers have applauded and encouraged daughters and sons for beating the hell out of someone who dissed them. Again, that's fine if you want your kid to act that way, but that voids their chance to be in class. The good of the one does not come close to outweighing the needs of the many.

On the flip side, I have my youngest daughter who just finished fourth grade, a beautiful time in her life and her schooling during which she was told, by a boy, that she was a bitch. She has had to witness fights in the cafeteria and screaming in the classroom. The bathrooms are a no-man's land because anything goes in there. It is _not_ a safe environment because some students, and yes a majority percentage are minority students, do not know how to behave within a community.

The other problem is that teachers are stretched too thin. In Syracuse, as in other cities, the cuts have been extreme. Class size is larger, numbers of teacher assistants have been drastically cut, and teachers have been laid off by the dozens. Because of this, there has been a huge increase in the workload for principals and vice-principals who are also overworked. And now there is a call to stop suspending kids.

I call bullshit.

As I said above, there has to be a plan in place. There have to be adequate numbers of adults in the building who can deal with these problems. Social workers, administrators, hall monitors, and, most of all, teachers and teacher assistants. It would really help if parents were involved as well.

A kid doesn't have to bring a gun to school in order to be a clear and present danger to my daughter's education. All they have to do is to make her feel unsafe. The kid who calls her a bitch in the hallway, the kid who throws their lunch tray across the cafeteria, the two kids brawling in the hallway, all these present dangers to her and keep her from being able to learn.

It is not wrong to punish people for behaving poorly in public spaces. It is right to teach them how to modify their behavior and absolutely right to demand that they heed the rules of a community. Suspensions are not a great answer, but with tremendous cuts to education there is a price we have to pay. As things stand in the Syracuse City School District, there is not enough money to pay enough people to keep our schools safe. That's a crime in and of itself. It is another offense on top of that to allow our schools to remain unsafe by ignoring bad behavior.

We need a real solution. Until that comes along--and I have yet to hear any good ones--I say let the suspensions continue. I want my daughter to be safe and able to learn. She can't be looking over her shoulder all day and still have the ability to write on.