Decriminalizing the Behavior of Boys of Color

Teaching Myself to Decriminalize Behaviors

One of the things that I learned over my years as a teacher is that adults do much of the behavior and rule breaking that we see in schools. We do not show up on time. We know how to differentiate but do not. We use sarcasm when talking to our students. I could go on and on. I never drive the speed limit. I do not really think that law applies to me. I hate that I cannot wear jeans to work. So when my kids like to have their shirts untucked, I completely get it. They are trying having their own sense of style. This something we have to do with all child behaviors. We have to put it in its proper context. If not, we bring in biases, anger and loose focus on actually correcting the behavior. As teachers we view student behaviors as an affront to our skill as teachers. We personalize it, thinking the child did it because we are in the room.

This was my outlook early in my career. I used to always compare myself to other teachers. “Jason would not act like that in Mrs. Brown’s room.” He would not do that around Mrs. Kennedy. This was bad for kids and bad for me, because instead of correcting the behaviors I was blaming the student. Though students should always take responsibility for their actions, without teaching discipline, the behavior will not go away. In my view this is the beginning of criminalizing behaviors, meaning:

We punish without teaching.

We see the behavior as being more than what it is.

We project the child as criminal or see or see the behavior as a criminal offense, and again there is no need to teach a criminal.

Seeing the perpetrator as a habitual rule breaker, as opposed to someone who just broke a rule. We tend to see a behavioral infraction as being part of a series of infractions.

My students are always breaking the rules. Two of them cannot stop tilting in their chairs. One student, let’s call him Justin, talks incessantly. Is he disrespectful? No. Is he a rule breaker yes? Should he be punished every time he talks? Of course not! As educators we do not always consider these questions when it comes to students, especially when we are frustrated with the behavior we see. And this is especially true of African-American males. We feel the need to control them. I know I do, but that is a different blog. When they fight, we say they need to go home for a few days. But how many well meaning males, black white or other get into fights? How many of the males make solid decisions and then have a misstep?

Males make up 90% of school referrals. Black males make up a disproportionate percentage of suspension. There is also a critical amount of evidence to suggest that African-American students are disciplined much harsher than their white counterparts who show similar school behaviors. So not only are they being suspended more frequently, they are being suspended for longer durations.

I will never forget sitting in church one Sunday. I was a youth minister so I faced the congregation. Many black males sit at the back of the church in the back rows. It drove me crazy. It makes me feel they are disengaged.  A few weeks later, I noticed hoards of people at my church older, white females and males sitting in those same back rows. I did not feel so bad after that. I had to put the behavior in it’s proper context. They were essentially sitting in the back because they came late, or wanted to leave right after the service. I later found they wanted to leave immediately after the service so they could go home and watch football. Was I upset and disappointed older members of our congregation were sitting in back of the church? And I was equally disappointed that my black males were. But there was no reason to try to correct it. There was no need for punishment or even chastisement.

How many of us do this as teachers and adults? How many of us are writing referrals for children that we should be correcting instead of disciplining? How many of us are wearing jeans and pretending they are within our dress code? Weren’t you the same way when you were that age?

Here are some steps to help teachers and adults decriminalize the behavior of males of color:

  • See the behaviors as an isolated incident. Do not attach it to other behaviors that the student has done, especially if the behaviors are not recent.
  • Do not attach the behavior or incidents to the behavior of other students. (In other words do not suspend a student because there is an uptick in fighting and you need to make an example of someone.)
  • When students break rules, it should first be an opportunity to teach. I believe in consequences, but not in place of teaching.
  • Parents, and educators should have a zero tolerance for zero tolerance. Zero tolerance usually means suspension or expulsion and it does not leave space for the student to explain or apologize.
  • Create we peer mediation and conflict resolution programs to gives our kids alternatives to fighting. This is a great way to reduce the severity of conflicts in school and teach students to talk through issues and disagreements without adults.
  • As a principal remember, your office and discipline is not analogous to a courtroom and sentencing.
  • On a macro level, schools should focus on the behaviors they want from students. Find ways to reinforce the behaviors you want more of.

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