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When School Rules Are Different for Students of Color

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Gina Caneva

As a 23-year-old rookie teacher, I worked at a public, hyper-segregated high school on the south side of Chicago. One day, it was cold in my classroom, and Jared, a senior, asked to put on his North Carolina basketball jacket. I had already put my own jacket on due to the chill, and I told him yes. I followed the rules most of the time, but this day was cold enough to make an exception.

It seemed like a small ask, but I knew it was a risk. Our school had a uniform policy that stated students were required to wear white shirts and black pants. As a new teacher, in our first meetings of the school year, I learned that the policy was created so that students would not display gang colors.

Yet, I had built a strong rapport with my seniors. I did not believe Jared asked for his jacket to display gang colors; I believed he was genuinely cold. The jacket even was a way of connecting—Jared and I both enjoyed basketball, so it was another way for my white, suburban self to relate to this young man.

Then my principal came in for a walk-through with his clipboard and pen. Within seconds, he gave Jared and me a stern look. I continued teaching, but my principal told Jared to take the jacket off and pulled me aside to say I needed to follow the uniform rules. I re-entered the classroom red-faced. Jared sat with his arms inside his t-shirt for the rest of the class period. The incident made me fear any rule-bending, and after that, I followed the directives verbatim—cold classroom or not.

The Fear of Rule-Bending

These kinds of situations happen in high school classrooms all the time.

At times they are more extreme. The Chicago-based Noble Charter Schools Network—which, according to 2015-16 data, is 99 percent Latinx or African American—made headlines recently for its strict bathroom policies.

NPR Illinois reported that students have to stand in front of the classroom and wait for an escort before they can use the bathroom—which is a particular problem for girls who are on their period. Some schools let students tie a Noble sweater around their waists to hide potential blood stains. Administrators alert the staff if a student has permission to do so, so that she won’t receive a demerit for violating the uniform policy.

Why are we prioritizing discipline at the expense of learning and relationships?

The school network, according to NPR, has a “prestigious reputation” and a “peculiarly high teacher-turnover rate.” According to teachers’ reports, there are completely quiet passing periods and a strict uniform and appearance policy, with no hair color or designs allowed. Teachers say they have used makeup and markers to color in hair on both male and female students. Students who don’t follow rules receive demerits, which lead to detentions and suspensions.

These stories highlight the strict and very different rules some student bodies have to play by in comparison to many of their white, public school peers. Noble is not alone in its strict practices: The KIPP Schools Network and other charter schools that serve mostly students of color have also previously come under fire for strict discipline policies.

It isn’t just charter schools that have a discipline problem: The latest federal civil-rights data show that black students are disciplined at a higher rate than white students in public schools, too.

Students Need Freedom in School

While these disparities affect schools nationwide, in my experience, they often improve in the suburbs. In my own high school, in the Chicago suburb of Lockport, students of any race could put on their jacket if they were cold. Teachers welcomed us instead of eyeing us to see if what we were wearing conformed to their standards. If we needed to go to the bathroom, emergency or not, we didn’t have escorts. When I’ve talked with teachers in suburbs of well-established, long-standing high schools with high minority populations—Joliet or Aurora high schools in Illinois, for instance—students do not seem to have the same strict sets of rules.

In my current school, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a selective enrollment school located in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, our school’s population is 70 percent African American and 25 percent Latinx. We do not have strict appearance or discipline policies compared to the two other urban schools that I’ve taught in.

When I no longer had to discipline students for uniform policies, I could focus on teaching. It was much easier for me to build rapport because students wore their interests on their shirts and could see me as a confidant, not a disciplinarian. What’s more, students often wore Lindblom gear by choice instead of by force, which added to school pride.

Far too many of our students of color do not get to experience this type of freedom in their high schools. Far too many teachers enforce rules that may have unclear intentions and cause conflicts between themselves and their students. Although no school will explicitly state that their policies have to do with the students’ racial make-up, instead declaring that rules help students succeed, to an outsider—no matter the intention—the rules are arbitrary, demoralizing, and racist.

I advise teachers and school leaders to examine their school rules to see if they hold up in the name of equity. If most white students, and many African-American and Latinx students in the suburbs, do not seem to have these same rules, why are we making the school experience so different for urban students of color? Why are we prioritizing discipline at the expense of learning and relationships? High school should be a place where students have the freedom to be themselves and feel relaxed and safe, rather than facing pressure to conform to harsh rules.

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