Last week, an Ohio judge refused to erase the suspension of a 12-year-old black boy who was punished for staring at his classmate last year.
The boy was suspended several days after participating in a staring contest with a white female classmate at St. Gabriel Consolidated School, and allegedly made her feel “fearful.” School officials were notified by the girl’s parents the day after the contest, claiming she felt intimidated by the boy. But the boy, who was forced to write an apology letter and subsequently suspended for a day, maintained he was unaware that his classmate was feeling uncomfortable.
“I never knew she was scared because she was laughing,” he wrote. “I understand I done the wrong thing that will never happen again. I will start to think before I do so I am not in this situation.”
The 12-year-old’s mother, Candice Tolbert, said her son was suspended because of a “perception [that] he intimidated her.” The family filed a lawsuit to have the punishment dismissed from his record, but Judge Patrick Dinkelacker declined the request. The ruling could be appealed in the future.
Studies show that black children are far more likely to be suspended than their white peers. According to the ACLU, 31 percent of school arrests involve black youth. Roughly one-third of all black boys in middle school and high school are suspended.
Zero-tolerance school policies that lead to student suspensions or entry into the justice system have long-term consequences. They pave the way for future arrests or stints in juvenile detention — known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Suspended students are also more likely to drop out of school.
While cops were not involved in this particular case, the boy’s suspension highlights how students of color are slapped with egregious punishments for minor offenses by school administrators. In the past, students have been arrested for violating dress codes, being late to school, initiating food fights, swearing and throwing skittles, and throwing peanuts. Others like Ahmed Mohamed and Kiera Wilmot are disciplined for their intellectual curiosity. Oftentimes, those students are denied due process.
Under former Attorney General Eric Holder, the DOJ issued guidance to reduce harsh school punishments in schools.
“Too often, so-called “zero-tolerance” policies — however well-intentioned — make students feel unwelcome in their own schools. They disrupt the learning process. And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people — increasing their likelihood of future contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems,” he said.
The DOJ guidance emphasized additional staff training, specific methods to create a positive school climate with multiple avenues for student support, and how to establish a clear set of disciplinary guidelines with the help of community stakeholders.