I remember being suspended for “insubordination” in sixth grade. I thought my teacher just didn’t like me. I didn’t know I was experiencing something much deeper and more problematic. It wasn’t just one bad teacher. The entire school district was four times more likely to suspend students who looked like me—Black boys—than our White peers. And while I didn’t have the information I needed to make sense of my situation then, we now have all the tools we need to fight back.
This week, the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights Data Collection released new data on racial disparities and other forms of discrimination in virtually every school and school district in America, from pre-K through 12th grade. Collected every two years, the data shows which groups of students each school suspends each year, who gets referred to police, who gets arrested at school and who gets access to high quality teachers and advanced courses. This is an invaluable resource for students, parents and educators to dismantle the school to prison pipeline and address systemic injustices in our nation’s schools. Here’s how you use it to combat racism in your school:
1. Find your school or district. Go to the site and look up the most recent data available for your school or district. Right now, that’s data from the 2015-16 school year.
2. Pull up your school’s profile. When you click on your school, it will pull up a profile that shows basic information about the students and teachers in the school. There are several links on the right side where you can find data on school discipline, access to gifted and advanced classes, and other issues.
3. Find the school discipline report. One of the most important parts of the site is the school discipline report, which can be accessed via a link on the right side of the page. This is where you can find out if Black students and kids from other marginalized groups are more likely to be suspended, expelled or referred to police. You can also see who is most likely to be arrested at school by clicking on the school related arrests link.
4. Be prepared for opposition. When you present the district data showing Black students are more likely to be disciplined, you will inevitably find people who try to say that it’s because Black students misbehave more. This is an untrue, racist belief. Be prepared to shut them down with facts. For example, research shows Black and White students are sent to the principal’s office at similar rates and that they commit serious offenses, like bringing weapons or drugs to school, at similar rates, too. And when Black students misbehave, they are punished more severely than White students who commit the same offenses.
5. Be intersectional in your analysis. Pay attention to the intersections of race, gender and disability status. For example, Black girls tend to be disciplined at particularly high rates compared to White girls, and students with disabilities (defined as IDEA on the site)—especially students of color with disabilities—tend to be disciplined at the highest rates.
6. Put together a clear argument. For example, you could say: “The data shows Black students are 10 percent of students at our school population, but 28 percent of the students who are suspended. Research shows that disparities like this tend to be due to discriminatory school discipline policies, not student behavior. What’s your plan to address this?” Add other statistics as appropriate or relevant to your school and the changes you want to see.
7. Get more detailed information on the issue. The Department of Education’s database is a starting point, but collecting more data can help you identify exactly what changes need to happen in your school. Create a list of follow-up questions to ask your school administrators and, if you can’t get the answers you need, create a survey for students or teachers to collect the information directly from them. For example, which infractions are students suspended for the most? Which teachers suspend the most students? Who is referring students to police and why? What’s the school’s policy on these things and how should it be changed? In addition to school disciplinary issues, are students of color also being excluded from gifted and advanced placement classes and other opportunities to succeed? If so, who’s making these decisions and why?
8. Propose solutions. Read about how other schools have addressed the issues you’ve identified. The Advancement Project and Dignity in Schools Campaign are good resources. Reach out to local and national activists and organizations if you have questions. Share your insights with others, organize and take action.
After I posted about this resource on Twitter, dozens of students and parents across the country used it to identify alarming racial disparities in their schools and begin the process of pressuring school administrators to address them. Here are some examples:
Thread for student organizers. @shakerschools let’s talk about how in 2015 100% of students expelled were Black or how Black students make up 52% of the population but only 19% are enrolled in calc. Or how there are 0 Black teachers in IB or AP. https://t.co/rcyYxKhsG7— Ose Arheghan (@oarheghan) April 25, 2018
At MacArthur HS @MacArthurCards Black students represent 24.5% of the student population but receive 41% of in school suspensions. By comparison White students represent 12.8% of the student population and receive 10.4%… https://t.co/mzdQRpMqqk— Jeremy (@CashJeremy) April 25, 2018
At my son’s school, Black students make up 20% of the pop but 65% and 50% of in-school & out-of-school suspensions, respectively. And only 4% of the gifted program. Structural inequalities and pro-white bias clearly exists. https://t.co/27FAsphqYI— Nicole #Resist Avant (@RxDrAvant) April 27, 2018
As more parents, students and educators step up to demand change, the policies and practices upholding the school to prison pipeline will begin to erode. One school at a time, systemic racism can be dismantled and our nation’s schools can be transformed into places where all students can succeed.
Samuel Sinyangwe is the co-founder of Campaign Zero, a national platform of policy solutions to end police violence in America.