We Must Look Inside Ourselves for Unconscious Bias that Punishes Unfairly in Schools
I picked my son up from freshman football practice today at his high school. I looked at the team which was predominantly African American and thought “how many of these kids will graduate?” The boys were all enthusiastic about the next game and ready to kick some butt because their arch rivals were next in the lineup. The team was newly rebuilt and they really wanted to set the bar high for next year’s freshman team. Many of the kids had never played before, but that didn’t matter because Coach Swank took them all and gave them hope they needed to forge ahead.
Thinking about these kids, I saw some that I knew struggled in school with learning. I also saw some I knew struggled with behavior and then there was a small population that seemed to have it mostly together but they too were beginning to show some signs of academic struggling trying to balance school and sports. The ones with what APPEARED to be the discipline problems I’d see in the past were often obvious and got kicked off the team pretty quickly. Some were not so obvious and I’d hear stories from my son of kids that just seemed to get picked by teachers from day one as discipline problems based on past behaviors.
I continued to wonder how many of these kids would graduate. I wondered if any would drop out because they may not feel they could cut it with grades. I hoped not that’s for sure. Then I wondered statistically speaking if any would end up with addictions. Or even worse would any end up like the poor kids I see on the news in traffic accidents? Then as I looked at their brown faces, African American, Latino, Indian, Asian and others…..how many would end up in the school to prison pipeline? I thought how many of their friends from prior years had already ended up there. I asked my son if he know of any kids in this school or the last (we’d recently moved here) who ended up in what the kids call Juvie? He mentioned a kid he had trouble with last summer who somehow ended up at the pool in our neighborhood starting trouble was sent away last week. My heart broke. I wondered what failed. Who failed him? What could society have done? What could the school have done? What could the parents have done? What could our legislators have done? And what could we as voters do? He went on to mention two other kids and yup, I asked the question “what did they look like?” He smirked and said “mom you already know.” Again I was heartbroken as I looked at my honor roll student and thought about a time when a teacher tried to paint him as an angry child when in fact she was a horrible teacher who ended up getting fired for harsh practices at his elementary school in Delaware.
Thinking back to the school to prison pipeline, it’s sad how many children of color get farmed out daily via suspensions that could have been handled differently? Don’t get me wrong some suspensions and expulsions are truly justified but a large number are not! Looking at data on the pipeline, it is consistently apparent that Black and Latino children top the lists of those who end up going to from school to prison. Many say it’s just because they have more behavior problems, but I say it is EXPECTED or ASSUMED they have more problems. This unconscious bias held by a significant number of school administration policy makers has lead to increased punishments, increased severity of punishment, lack of attention to intellectual learning disorders and behavioral health concerns as well as undermining the confidence kids have to excel. Once deemed a “problem child” these children often have little recourse in turning around the label that is on them.
As it relates to the unconscious bias noted above, people don’t usually walk around volunteering and saying to me “hey lady, can you help me with my unconscious bias.” To do so could make them feel like society is saying something wrong with them when instead being willing to lean into this learning process says “something is right with you.” Most educators are great people and very intelligent because hey, they teach us! This intelligence in many can unfortunately lead to a state of ontological arrogance wherein they believe the way they see things is the same way the world sees things and if they see it that way it must be right. It does not lend flexibility needed to assist them in seeing that micro-triggers are often the underlying catalyst to the unconscious bias based decisions they make. We must keep in mind like everyone else, they bring their life experiences to work with them every day and it can impact their jobs. What they often don’t see is this doesn’t always make them bad people but instead flawed like the rest of us who no matter how hard we try cannot be perfect because perfection is impossible. Alternatively, I must acknowledge that there are some bad apples in the bunch too but that is not who I’m talking about. For regular folks who don’t have an intentional passion for malice towards others based on their differences, it takes a very self-aware person to come to my coaching practice and say “I want to learn more about me and how I can be better with others regardless of race, sexual orientation, economic class, education level, gender or life status. I want to change my thinking.” It takes a person who has had so much pain from the decisions they’ve made and often guilt to go with it to say “enough is enough and I NEED to release this for the sake of not only others but myself and those that matter to me. I don’t like who I’ve become or I want to become a better person because I love myself that much to do so.”
It saddens me to know that many won’t ever do that. They won’t ever seek to change because they somehow believe some children are inherently bad. They buy into media stereotypes that subliminally brainwash all of us in some shape form or fashion whether it be about weight, sex, relationships, gender, race, northerners, southerners or anything in between. They think they are too smart to believe they could possibly be affected; but, statistically speaking it is impossible to not be affected by your environment and the constant attacks at the good we so hardily strive for which in today’s world often comes through some form of media.
People will often agree media affects societal views; however, we are all part of society and often refuse to acknowledge it includes us too. Think about a bad day at the office. If you watch a human interest story it can relieve tension, stress and anger. It can go into the brain’s emotional center (the amygdala) as you process what you’re a watching and releases endorphins (our natural pain and stress fighters) giving us a sense of happiness. If this can happen from one interaction with media, imagine what thousands of interactions with negative media can do to us. Imagine what images over and over of “bad people” who happen to be minorities, intellectually challenged or poor can do to us. It can instill a sense of fear that eats away at our need for safety. When we feel unsafe we launch into fight or flight. As a teacher, the bad experience = the child’s behavior and to gain safety, they are ejected from the equation (zero tolerance suspensions). Additionally, if we’ve had a bad experience with something or someone we can subconsciously act on this which can be compounded with the feeling of not being safe. When kids move away from the cute kids stage to real person with real views and behaviors person, this can cause that unconscious response to project bias. We all have this regardless of race, gender or social class but with the continuum of images of “bad brown” people in our faces the impact has become catastrophic to our children.
The school to prison pipeline is alive and kicking and we can’t continue to ignore it without it impacting us as we build armies of kids who become hard after being incarcerated. We can look at all the interventions in the world but the biggest intervention starts inside of us as individuals. Admitting we aren’t perfect and we often need a re-do can begin the process that is so desperately needed to help save the kids and turn them into the productive citizens they were meant to be in the first place. Face folks, we need to fix what we can’t see so we can fix what we can see.
Photo: Dana Beveridge/Flickr