Immediate harm reduction. Comprehensive community safety and restorative justice. Resourcing healthy community practices. These actions are at the center of protesters’ cries for law enforcement reform across the country, as seen in initiatives like Campaign Zero’s #8Can’tWait and the #8toAbolition campaign.
These changes many are calling for in our communities are not so different from the change desperately needed in some of our communities’ most important institutions – our schools.
Black, Indigenous and students of color disproportionately receive the harshest disciplinary actions in schools. It feels ridiculous to have to say this, but that is not because we Latinx or Black people are more likely to misbehave than our white peers. Research demonstrates that Black boys are punished more harshly than their white classmates for similar offenses. Black students are two times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension.
These stats ring true on a personal level for so many. In October 2019, my 14-year-old niece was attacked at a high school football game by five older students from a different high school who were upset about a social media interaction. My niece was rushed to the hospital, suffering from a brain contusion, multiple wounds to her head and face, and a dislocated shoulder. After she was cleared by the doctor, she returned to school, only to receive a 3-day suspension, removal from the cheerleading squad, and a threat to be banned from sports for the rest of her high school career–a far cry from a conversation about how to support her post traumatic stress, her inability to carry books because of her injuries, or procedures to support her through her injury-induced migraines.
Prior to the attack, my niece was a straight-A student in honors classes. A Mexican American teenager attending a large comprehensive high school in what is considered a progressive district in a progressive city, she was now regarded as a troublemaker. Cries for help fell on deaf ears. She fell behind in her classes. It took months of advocating for her to prove she was worthy of restorative practices and social and emotional supports including the very basics—a counselor to help her navigate the stress and additional time to make up assignments she missed while hospitalized. Why was that even a question or an argument? Why was the school’s first and only response punitive?
So many students, like my niece, face out-of-school suspensions because schools currently have a very limited set of tools to use in response to student crises. However, out–of–school suspensions, while intended to improve behavior, more often result in significant lost learning time and more poor behavior. One national study found that one suspension increases the chances that a student will commit future criminal offenses by 65 percent; two suspensions by 100 percent; and three suspensions by 200 percent.
Students of color are also much more likely to attend a school with a police presence: 54% of middle and high schools whose students are predominately Black have a security officer, compared to 32% of schools whose students are predominately white.
There is an assumption of criminality before students of color walk in the door.
The good news is that there is a way out: Inspired by states that have moved to limit out of class suspensions in recent years, and to focus on prevention and de-escalation, we present some measures education leaders and their teams can take to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline and engage in restorative rather than punitive school practices:
- Build trusting relationships with families and communities. When schools actively engage families in supporting their children’s learning, their children learn more and they are more invested in school. Strong partnerships between school leaders, teachers and parents make it easier to resolve challenges as they arise. These partnerships also help teachers better understand why a student might be acting out and work with the family and the student to resolve the problem. Consider meeting parents somewhere convenient and comfortable for them early in the year. Share work samples showing their child’s achievements and ask how they as parents feel their children learn best and what engages them.
- Center student voice in and outside of classrooms. When students are given leadership roles in their schools, in classrooms and in school life, they remain more engage and feel more invested in their education. Curriculum should engage students in identifying and working together to research and devise solutions for real world problems. Elevate student voice by giving students meaningful opportunities to provide input into rules, norms, discipline, and social-emotional learning in their own classrooms and schools.
- Replace punitive discipline policies and practices with restorative practices. Restorative practices, when embedded within a school culture, have been found to create a more respectful, tolerant, and accepting culture, increased student connectedness, and improved student learning and decreases in discipline disparities, fighting, and suspensions. Create space for students to talk with a trained adult and work through their conflict rather than just sending them home.
- De-escalate situations to keep students in classrooms. Disciplinary action in schools usually means missed learning time for students. Minoritized students disproportionately feel the effects of out-of-school suspension policies: Black students miss 66 days of lost instruction per 100 students, compared to 31 days for Native Americans, 17 days for Latinx students, 14 days for white students, and 4 days for Asian students. It’s no wonder that after so much out of school time, students fall further behind in their learning. School system leaders must give teachers and principals support to better manage their classrooms and address behavioral issues, by implementing strategies that limit out of school time.
- Strengthen relationships between students and teachers. Students spend more than 1,000 hours a year with their teachers. Strong teacher-student relationships have been found to lead to higher student academic engagement, attendance, grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates. Ensure every student has a strong bond with at least one adult in the building. Schedule time each week for student and teacher to connect and build a trusting relationship.
- Eliminate law enforcement, increase counseling. Nationally, schools staff consist of more than 27,000 sworn law enforcement officers but just 23,000 social workers, according to an ACLU report. The American School Counselors Association recommends a 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio, which has been found to reduce student absence rates and increase student learning and graduation rates. However, the national ratio is 444:1. Let’s shift this staffing model so that students are getting needed emotional support ahead of disciplinary action.
- Offer social and emotional supports to staff to be emotionally intelligent educators who put relationships at the center of their practice and recognize the role of systemic racism in the trauma they have experienced personally and how it impacts their students on a daily basis.
- Train staff to use racially aware trauma sensitive strategies: It cannot just be the job of a counselor to support students who are experiencing trauma. Teachers must be trained to look for signs of trauma and either directly support their students when possible and appropriate, reach out to the parent or guardian, or help make referrals to a counselor.
Leveraging anti-racist practices in schools means overhauling the entire system — disrupting practices fully, not piece by piece, so that we can cut off once and for all the unhealthy and harmful practices naturally embedded in the way many schools function.
In the same way calls to defund the police are calls for reversing the militarization of our broken system and giving additional support for mental health and other community supports, this is a call to de-militarize our schools by ensuring a system that is first and foremost, a safe, affirming and relationship-centered place for our youth.
Our youth deserve to be seen, recognized, heard, and restored. I cannot tell you how defeating it was when the school used a single story to label my niece and turn her traumatic experience into a statistic—taking no responsibility for ensuring her social and emotional well-being. Getting her the help and the support she needed, should not have been a fight. It should be a way of being in schools and school systems for every student.
These 8 can’t wait, either.
Nancy B. Gutiérrez, Ed.L.D.
Lead Executive Officer & President
Dr. Nancy B. Gutiérrez is President & Lead Executive Officer (LEO) of The Leadership Academy, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and developing culturally responsive school and school system leaders to create the conditions necessary for all students to thrive. Since 2003, The Leadership Academy has done work in more than 375 school districts, state education departments, and education organizations across the country, reaching over 12,000 educators in 39 states.
Nancy began her career as a teacher and principal in her home community of East San Jose, CA, where she was the founding principal of Renaissance Academy, the highest performing middle school in the district and a California Distinguished School. Nancy also led the successful effort to turn around the district’s lowest performing middle school. She was named the UC Davis Rising Star and Association of California School Administrators’ Region 8 Middle School Principal of the Year in 2010. In 2014, Nancy joined The Leadership Academy and served in various roles before being named President & CEO in October 2018. Prior to her tenure with the Leadership Academy, Nancy launched a program for executive leadership advancement for the New York City Department of Education that led to superintendent certification.
Nancy is a Fall 2019 Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and was named one of the top 100 most influential leaders in education in New York in 2020. In 2023, Nancy was named San Jose State University’s Distinguished Alumna.
Nancy is a graduate of the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) program and is a graduate of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) Aspiring Superintendents Academy. She has served as an adjunct professor for NYU, Teachers College and American University as well as an expert guest at various Harvard Principals’ Center Institutes. Nancy is a frequent keynote speaker and has authored numerous pieces on education leadership for publications including Education Week, Kappan, The74, Learning Forward’s Learning Professional, District Administrator, and Hechinger Report. She is also the co-author of Stay and Prevail: Students of Color Don’t Need to Leave Their Communities to Succeed, a revolutionary guide to disrupting harmful mindsets and practices in our schools to ensure that students can thrive in their home communities.
Nancy is a member of the Board of Directors at the Hunt Institute, brightbeam, and Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC), and serves on the Latinos for Education teaching team.