Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

When School Rules Are Different for Students of Color

By Gina Caneva — June 06, 2018 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
From Chaos to Clarity: How to Master EdTech Management and Future-Proof Your Evaluation Processes
The road to a thriving educational technology environment is paved with planning, collaboration, and effective evaluation.
Content provided by Instructure
Special Education Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table - Special Education: Proven Interventions for Academic Success
Special education should be a launchpad, not a label. Join the conversation on how schools can better support ALL students.
Special Education K-12 Essentials Forum Innovative Approaches to Special Education
Join this free virtual event to explore innovations in the evolving landscape of special education.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Gaming Is Part of Teen Life. These Districts Use It for Better Student Outcomes
Scholastic esports is attracting students who would otherwise not participate in extracurricular activities.
4 min read
Connor Allen, of Cranberry, Pa. picks his character before a round of "Super Smash Bros. Ultimate" during the Steel City Showdown esports tournament at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, on May 11, 2019 in Pittsburgh.
Students get ready before an esports tournament at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, on May 11, 2019 in Pittsburgh.
Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
School Climate & Safety Explainer Restorative Justice in Schools, Explained
What is restorative justice, and how can it be implemented in schools?
1 min read
Generic school hallway with lockers
Some districts have integrated more restorative justice practices into their disciplinary structure. Experts describe what restorative justice looks like and how it can be implemented in schools.
iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety Video 3 Steps for Schools to Use Relationships as a 'Prevention Strategy'
Research has shown that strong school relationships can be a prevention strategy for chronic absenteeism, misbehavior, and other challenges.
7 min read
Four high school students work together on an experiment in an AP chemistry class at a high school in Los Angeles, Calif. on Wednesday, January 22, 2020.
Four high school students work together on an experiment in an AP chemistry class at a high school in Los Angeles, Calif. on Wednesday, January 22, 2020.
Allison Shelley/EDUimages
School Climate & Safety Uvalde Shooting Victims' Families Sue State Police, Settle With City for $2M
The families say they also agreed a $2 million settlement with the city, which will be used on better training for local police.
3 min read
Crosses are surrounded by flowers and other items at a memorial on June 9, 2022, for the victims of a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The families of 19 people who were killed or injured in the shooting and their attorneys are set to make an announcement, Wednesday, May 22, 2024.
Crosses are surrounded by flowers and other items at a memorial on June 9, 2022, for the victims of a shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The families of 19 people who were killed or injured in the shooting and their attorneys are set to make an announcement, Wednesday, May 22, 2024. Friday will mark the two-year anniversary of the shooting where a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers.
Eric Gay/AP