In the late 1950s, my mother, a second-grade teacher, left her job in an affluent all-white suburb of Detroit to teach at an almost all-black school in Pontiac, Michigan. She believed that more cutting edge work was being done there in early education. Not long into her tenure at Bethune Elementary, she started getting negative feedback from black parents.
In parent-teacher conferences, several parents complained that my mother was not using enough corporal punishment and was not kicking kids out of school enough. They said she couldn’t teach black children if she insisted on babying them like white children.
I was somewhere in pre-adolescence at the time. When she told us about it at dinner, I was confused. I did not remember an absence of corporal punishment in my own upbringing. Not even a shortage. I remember thinking, “Maybe she babies other white people’s kids.” I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to sound like I felt left out. My father still could have helped with that.
It is so complicated, this whole business of raising children. Between what goes on at home and what happens at school, it is the business of shaping human destiny, as if from moist clay. But how? Why? Toward what end?
A bill authored by Dallas State Rep. Eric Johnson, now passed by both houses in Austin and sitting on the governor’s desk for a signature to become law, would prohibit out-of-school suspensions for public school kids in pre-K through the second grade, steering Texas school districts instead toward more positive methods for correcting bad behavior.
His bill, which borrows important elements from one authored by State Rep. Helen Giddings, also a Democrat of Dallas, is a statewide extension of a measure the Dallas school district passed last February. In fact it’s an example of something we don’t often get to brag about in Dallas – the Dallas school system helping to lead the way.
When I talked to Johnson about his bill last week, he said things that reminded me immediately of that dinner table conversation 100 years ago with my mother about her experiences at Bethune Elementary, a place she came to love dearly, by the way.
Johnson said to me: “Inherent racial biases will lead even people of color, not just white people, to look at two kids who are similarly situated in terms of age and everything else, except for race, and think that the same behavior with a blond-haired white kid is just 'boys being boys'; ‘He’s playful'; 'he’s a rambunctious kid.’
“Whereas with the black kid, they think, ‘Here’s a future inmate. Here’s a thug in the making.’ And that’s not limited to white people. That’s the amazing thing.”
Johnson referred to research gathered by Dallas School Board Trustee Miguel Solis when the Dallas board was having its own debate on out-of-school suspensions in the lowest grades: “Miguel’s data also show that it’s not like these suspensions are only occurring when you have little black boys in classes with white teachers,” he said. “It’s happening with little black boys in classes where there are black teachers.”
He described the attitude of some teachers toward black kids as: “‘I’m going to keep you under close watch, and, any little thing you do, we’re going to pounce right on it to keep this from becoming a problem.’ I think societal biases make people think you’ve got to really put these kids in their place, especially these little black boys, and they have to be manhandled in a lot of ways.”
Of course, no one would be complaining if that system worked like a charm. The real problem, according to the evidence, is that nothing we do with poor urban minority kids works very well, and the data show that out-of school suspensions for very little kids, especially boys, are ineffective and may even be counter-productive.
Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy group, published a report last year finding that out-of-school suspensions for very young children have a high correlation with school failure and life failure.
“Young students who are expelled or suspended are as much as 10 times more likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative school attitudes, and face incarceration than those who are not,” the report found.
It gets back into that area of shaping destinies and the complicated ways in which adults see kids and kids see adults. We can say anything we want to very young, barely verbal children, but their green brains are taking us in at a level of modeling more than rational thought. If the behavior we model says, “You don’t belong here, we don’t want you here,” then they may decide pretty quickly that they don’t belong there, that school is hostile territory.
And, indeed, both Johnson and Solis say that’s what the data show from all over the country.
“Suspensions don’t actually improve the behavior,” Johnson said. “It’s almost misleading to describe suspensions as a disciplinary tool because the implication is that somehow by sending a kid home you’ll get him to behave better, but it doesn’t actually do anything to help their behavior. It actually makes it worse in many cases.”
So, wait. The kid’s bad. The kid’s out of control. The teacher can’t teach the other kids with this kid raising hell all day. Or the kid is truly dangerous. He brings a weapon to school and threatens to kill somebody. What does the teacher do with that? Just let the worst kid in the class rule the class? Leave the other kids in danger? Those can’t be real-life solutions, either.
First of all, the Johnson bill provides an immediate remedy for the case of the truly dangerous kid. He’s out. He must be removed from the presence of the other kids and the teacher. No question about it.
But short of that, the bill provides a menu of options based on a massive body of research gathered by Solis when he was selling this to the Dallas school board. Experiences in big urban districts all over the country show that there are positive ways to change the behavior of very young children. Many of the methods suggested in the Johnson bill are tried, tested and true by now.
They all incorporate a principle Solis described to me last year when he was getting into this: We have to tell the kid we want him to be there. Or her. Any kid.
We have to start by modeling a behavior that says, “Come to us. Come here. Our arms are open. We want you here. We will protect you here. We will shape you. We will shape your destiny.”
Assuming the governor signs Johnson’s bill – and during the legislative session, no significant opposition showed up wanting to kill it – Texas will become a national leader in this area. Johnson was too modest to start crowing much about that – maybe he didn’t want to jinx the governor’s signature – but Solis told me he thinks it’s pretty cool for Texas to be out front on this.
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“Think about Texas and the Texas ethos,” Solis said. “We’re a tough state. We like to carry our guns on our hip, and nobody’s going to tell us what to do.
“For us to do something like ban out-of-school suspension for pre-K through second grade, it’s kind of crazy to think we’re taking this step when there are so many states seen as more moderate that are not doing something like this.
“It’s a pretty revolutionary step. Despite all the craziness coming out of legislature, this is a bright spot.”
So let’s hope that last remark doesn’t set off a fire alarm at the all-the-craziness bunk house in Austin and set those people scrambling out the windows in their long johns like red ants, as is their wont. Wouldn’t it be grand to instead see something positive come out of Austin and to think that little old us may have had a thing or two to do with it?