Education Secretary Recounts Teenage Experiences When Talking About Student Discipline

Acting Education Secretary Dr. John King, Jr., testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, during his confirmation hearing as the Education Secretary. CREDIT: SUSAN WALSH, AP
Acting Education Secretary Dr. John King, Jr., testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, during his confirmation hearing as the Education Secretary. CREDIT: SUSAN WALSH, AP

Education Secretary John King is calling on charter schools to rethink how they handle student discipline, urging them the tendency to suspend black and Hispanic students at higher rates than white students.

King said these “exclusionary student discipline practices” are ultimately feeding the school-to-prison pipeline and that educators need to “understand the implicit biases” they carry with them into schools.

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“In rethinking discipline, charters also have the opportunity to lead the way on equity. The students who are most likely to be suspended and expelled are students who we already fail too often … As we reflect on the kids who we are most worried about, we have to return to the original meaning of ‘no excuses.’ It was never about ‘no excuses’ for the kids. It was always about ‘no excuses’ for ourselves as educators — no blaming parents, no blaming neighborhoods — and asking ourselves, ‘What could we, the adults in school, do differently to change outcomes?’” King said.

King’s remarks, which he delivered during a speech to the National Public Charter Schools Conference on Tuesday, are just the latest in a series of efforts from the department to recognize the importance of reducing racially disparate student discipline.

According to recent data released by the department, although student suspensions have fallen by 20 percent compared to its 2011–2012 survey, students of color are still far more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students. And students who are suspended at least once during the school year are more likely to drop out — which, in turn, makes them more likely to get involved in the criminal justice system.

Charter schools have not been immune to doling out racially disparate student discipline outcomes — in fact, students of color who attend charter schools have slightly worse discipline outcomes compared to their white peers in public schools, according to data analyzed by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles. For example, the suspension rate for black elementary school students at non-charters was 8 percent compared to 8.7 percent for charters. For Latino students, the suspension rates were actually worse in elementary and secondary school but were still very close.

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Looking only at charter schools, black students were four times as likely to be suspended compared to white students. Students with disabilities were two to three times as likely to be suspended compared to students who aren’t disabled.

“I was angry about my experiences, and rebelled against authority.”

The message that charter schools need to reconsider their approach to student discipline may be effective coming from King — who co-founded a Boston charter school, Roxbury Preparatory Charter School, and who has personal experience with challenging discipline situations.

“What I know from those experiences, and what I’ve learned since, is that discipline is a nuanced and complicated issue,” King said. “I know from my own life, that when I wasn’t handling rules and structures well, it was because of the chaos of my life — and what I needed was compassion, attention, and engaging learning.”

King lost both of his parents within a span of a few years, which he says affected his behavior in the classroom. He was eventually kicked out of his high school. But he said that his teachers never gave up on him, no matter how challenging his behavior may have been.

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“They could have looked at me and said, ‘Here is an African-American, Latino male student from Brooklyn with a family in crisis who got kicked out of school, what chance does he have?’” King said. “But, instead, they gave me a second chance.”

Last summer, the department released a guide to help superintendents improve student discipline. The guide suggests holding community meetings and engaging school board members, teachers, parents, students, and principals to discuss improving the school’s approach to discipline; collecting and analyzing data on discipline; and establishing clear goals and benchmarks to reducing discriminatory school discipline.

The guide points to Oakland Unified School District as an example of how to take a better approach to these issues. That school district implemented a three-year restorative justice practice program, and reported a 46 percent decline in out-of-school suspensions and 50 percent fall in suspensions at two high schools during the 2011–2012 school year.