In a total Godwink and collision of events, the question posed to my Education Law students this week was the following:
You are an assistant principal at a high school where less than 10% of the students identify themselves as non-white. An African American male student is frequently sent to your office by different teachers because of disruptive and non-compliant behaviors. You have found him to be a likeable student, but he has shared with you that he feels his teachers do not understand or like him. You have a good relationship with Jason. However, each time he is sent to your office, you wonder if other issues need to be addressed. You have set up a conference with his parents. During the conference, they point out to you that on the campus only 2 out of 90 teachers are non-white. They further state that the posters and art displayed on campus as well as the school’s website do not depict students “who look like our child.”
At this point, how do you address the concerns with the parents? What other actions do you need to take as the assistant principal?
All of my Education Law students had various thoughtful responses. Erin Bueche (yes, she gave me permission to use her name) wrote something I felt deeply compelled to share with people who read my blog. Please let me know what you think. I will certainly pass it along to Erin.
I think it is about time someone stepped forward to recognize that the art around the school is outdated and not diverse! Let's collaboratively work together and change this! See, I grew up in a rather urban school. I am a white girl who grew up playing basketball with all my black friends. I brought my black friends home; they taught me to double dutch, and we never saw a difference in skin color. I was 5'7 in the 6th grade, and I learned to play ball like a young Michael Jordan... OK now that is a hyperbole, but what I am saying here, is that I would thank the parents for scheduling a time to come in and talk. I am going to stand with them, and it is about time I get put in my place about the school decorations. Perhaps those small changes can make Jason feel welcome and excited to learn, and perhaps his behaviors may change.
Additionally, why is Jason's behavior so bad? Why is he always getting sent to the office? I must see the data on this student regardless of color. I want to ask Jason a few questions with a counselor and his parents if they allow the counselor, and get to know Jason and his family better. Is there something at home that is bothering him and it affects him at school? Does he struggle with a topic/ certain teacher? Have there been any changes in his life that cause him to rebel? I believe in a social-emotional connection with my students. Building trust with them, even at the high school level, is important. I would ask the parents, "Please tell me more about how you feel about the people at this school not looking like your child." To what are they referring? Once I get the answer (I am certain I will hear about racial or ethnic backgrounds), I will remind the parents that staff and students cannot discriminate against one another for color:
There was a time in my elementary school years that I will not forget. Every student created a ceramic tile in art class that was going to be cemented to a beautiful mosaic art sculpture outside of the library for years to come. Each one of us students made a tile that represented who we were and they all randomly got cemented to the sculpture over spring break. When we returned, we were all amazed at the unity in that design! My tile got placed next to my two black best friends, Alisha and Raven. We are friends to this day, and just so, that sculpture still stands.
I loved her response for so many reasons. I am currently questioning my own inadvertent denial of white privilege, white silence, assuming good intentions are enough and so much more. I hope all of my white friends and family are doing the same. For all my black friends and family, I extend an invitation --- an invitation to tell me more about your own story. I truly want to listen to you talk about times you have been scared when, even as a young girl, I would have never been scared because I must have subconsciously believed my skin color provided some "Teflon". I am making it a point to DO something instead of just thinking about doing something. What are you doing to either show your outrage or to help ensure that one day there is no need for outrage.
Loving all of you and happy communicating to all,