It is increasingly clear to all Americans what Black communities have known for generations: Systemic racism not only persists throughout our institutions, laws, and policies, but it negatively impacts physical, psychological, and emotional health. Less evident, however, is that the overpolicing and systemic racism we see playing out in the streets, has occurred for decades in our public school system—from a 6-year-old being handcuffed and arrested for a tantrum to a 12-year-old being suspended for sharing an inhaler with an asthmatic friend who could not breathe.
As school boards across the country—including in San Francisco; Denver; Rochester, N.Y.; Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; and Charlottesville, Va.—move to sever ties with police departments, the goal must be broader than merely removing police. Police-free schools alone do not equal safe and healthy learning environments.
As schools prepare to reopen during the age of COVID-19, they must address another public health crisis: the deep-rooted and racialized practice of exclusionary school discipline, which includes suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement. More than 45 years of research proves this approach to discipline not only is ineffective in achieving intended goals (maintaining classroom order and safety and preventing future “misbehaviors”) but also has for decades exacerbated intergenerational trauma and health and economic disparities faced by Black families and communities.
Research illustrates the chilling similarities between children who experience exclusionary school discipline and adults with post-traumatic stress disorder."
Calls to end racialized school discipline practices are not new. In 1975, the Children’s Defense Fund found that Black students were suspended at twice the rate of white students because of “pervasive school intolerance for children who are different.” In 2018, the Government Accountability Office confirmed that race remained the persistent driver of discipline disproportionality. Exclusionary school discipline pushes Black students out of classrooms at rates higher than their white peers regardless of types of punishment, types of school, or levels of poverty. And it starts early: Black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely as white preschoolers to be suspended.
Governors, state school boards, and local school districts must take decisive action to implement an immediate moratorium on exclusionary school discipline in all schools. Such a moratorium is the first step in ending a legacy of educational racism that threatens community health and well-being. Offering trauma-informed supports and resources to students, teachers, and families is equally important.
Whenever students return to their classrooms, they will be carrying particularly heavy burdens of trauma on their shoulders. Without these positive interventions, the effects of the pandemic will leave a lasting mark on the very architecture of children’s brains, impeding their ability to focus, learn, or cope with stress.
Research illustrates the chilling similarities between children who experience exclusionary school discipline and adults with post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to the negative psychological impacts, this approach to discipline decreases students’ likelihood of high school graduation—a key marker of educational attainment, which is tied directly to risks for chronic disease, social and economic instability, incarceration, and life expectancy. By age 25, those with a high school degree can expect to live 11 to 15 years longer than those without one.
Finally, exclusionary school discipline is the steppingstone to the school-to-prison pipeline. Youth incarceration has devastating mental- and physical-health effects during adolescence and adulthood. Each of these individual outcomes of exclusionary school discipline is a public-health issue, but cumulatively, they represent an undeniable public-health crisis.
When Black students return to classrooms, they will unequivocally need support, not punishment. Failing to do so will not only repeat a long history of oppression and harm but further fuel health inequities. Schools cannot afford to make the same mistakes with COVID-19 that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when trauma was misinterpreted and “treated” with strict consequences for even the slightest infractions. Students were punished for wearing the wrong kind of socks to class, not sitting up, or even talking in the hallways. Instead of asking, “What has happened to this child?” school officials asked, “What’s wrong with this child?”
Issuing a nationwide moratorium on exclusionary school discipline is a critical protection for children coping with unprecedented trauma. It will also support school staff so that they do not unintentionally misinterpret the symptoms of trauma and turn to punitive measures. We must remember that school staff—who have been asked to take on a number of different roles and responsibilities during this pandemic—are also navigating unparalleled stresses, anxieties, and grief, both personally and professionally.
Dismantling the deeply entrenched roots of racism will require local and national educational policy changes to ensure these practices become permanent. Education leaders are not in this alone. Public-health and medical communities—that understand the negative impacts of racism on children and young people’s healthy development as well as the mental and physical toll of COVID-19—are critical partners in developing school-based policy and practice solutions. Many in public health (including local health departments) and medicine are already stepping up to provide guidance to schools grappling with how to safely reopen and address the physical, social, and emotional needs of staff, students, and families.
The work of health justice in schools is vital. The recent wave of demonstrations has made clear that radical change is possible when we come together and lend ourselves to a broader movement. As author James Baldwin eloquently reminded us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” We cannot miss the opportunity presented by these extraordinary times for real and transformative change in schools.