THE U.S. Department of Education is now investigating disproportionately high rates of discipline for black students in Seattle Public Schools. It’s a problem, a Seattle Times story notes, “That has plagued the district for decades.”
The problem is deep and pervasive. Suspension rates for black students are three times higher than rates for white students, from elementary to high school. One-fourth of black middle-schoolers have received short-term suspensions every year since 1996.
We like to believe we are better than this. “This is Seattle! We’re a smart, progressive community!”
But when it comes to race, we’re not as advanced as we believe. These racial inequities are the same as across the country; not just in education, but in criminal justice, health, jobs and housing. Systemic-racial inequity creates a fundamentally different reality based on the color of our skin.
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We must address the root of this problem: institutional racism. Our top priority is to curtail out-of-school suspensions. Students not in school are far more likely to fall further behind in their work and never return to school. Instead of punitive discipline, let’s use a restorative-justice approach that focuses on learning from mistakes and restoring relationships.
The district also needs to eliminate racial biases that are built into some disciplinary infractions. Far too often, students of color receive harsher punishments than white students for the same behavior, especially for subjective behavior such as “disruptive conduct.” In many cases, disruptive conduct is in the eye of the beholder, the eyes of staff who unconsciously apply different standards to students based on their race.
We need to hire and retain qualified teachers of color. Studies show that students of color have better academic outcomes when they are taught by teachers of color. The current teaching staff does not reflect the diversity of students.
Finally, teachers need better understanding of racism in Seattle today. We are no longer who we were as a community in 1970, when racism was explicit and intentional. Today, racism plays out in systemic biases that are built into our institutions and classrooms, even though most of us in Seattle are personally committed to racial equity.
This work has already begun. The Seattle School Board showed leadership by passing the “Ensuring Educational and Racial Equity” policy that clearly names the problem: disproportionate over-application of discipline to students of color. Superintendent José Banda has demonstrated his commitment by participating as a member of the Race and Social Justice Community Roundtable, a partnership of community organizations and public institutions working together to achieve racial equity.
Within the district, a staff team on race and equity is introducing new training, and a Seattle Teacher Residency program has been developed to increase hiring and retention of teachers of color. School-district leaders are working to remove unintended, built-in biases from policies and practices.
The work ahead is not easy. We live in a highly racialized society, but many of us are uncomfortable talking about race.
The school district abruptly shut down a popular high-school humanities class in race and social justice after one student’s parents complained. In reinstating the class a few weeks later, Banda rightfully stated support for “ongoing and healthy discussions about social justice, race and gender issues in our classrooms.”
He also said we need to “make sure the curriculum is taught in a way that does not harm any student.”
Unfortunately, students of color have been harmed by Seattle Public Schools’ policies and practices for generations. Change isn’t easy and to change our current reality, we will have to get comfortable with discomfort. The problem is urgent and the time is now.
Julie Nelson, left, is the director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights and co-chair of the Equity and Race Advisory Committee for Seattle Public Schools. Michael Nguyen is also a member of that committee and a teacher at Roxhill Elementary School.