CONVERSATIONS ABOUT RACE IN QUEEN ANNE’S COUNTY
Conversations about race began in earnest in Queen Anne’s County with the gathering of about 60 county citizens over supper at the Kramer Center in late June. Groups of six or eight diverse people spoke sociably at each table about their lived experiences with race. Violence across our nation triggered a willingness to talk about a topic often left untouched.
As this first step in courageous conversations began, many realized that more talk among neighbors and colleagues who are different from one another would strengthen our community. Others remarked on the vitality of purpose offered when the knowledge we share is evidence-based.
One such strand of knowledge is the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a phenomenon evident across America. Here is where the work of our teachers and policemen intersect as community leaders who seek to build a strong, integrated society.
When statistics showed that the number of students who failed to master reading and had behavior problems in grade 3 correlated with the number of those who would be imprisoned as young adults, educators and policemen took special note. More attention grew as the body of evidence further connected how suspension from school for misbehavior was the number-one predictor of children who drop out of school and have a greater likelihood of unemployment and imprisonment.
Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., held the first federal hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline in 2013 to address policies that favored incarceration over education. Zero tolerance policies for student misbehavior were not working. Data showed suspensions had doubled from the level of the 1970s and suspensions were not helping students. In 2010, more than 3 million students were suspended from school. Misbehavior was rewarded with time off from school.
The hearing also brought attention to the fact that Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than Caucasian students. At the National Education Association’s Black Caucus, caucus chairman Jacqui Greadington advised that bias starts early. “Black children represent 18 percent of pre-school children, but account for 48 percent of pre-school suspensions — yes, we’re talking about 4-year-olds.”
In fact, nearly one in three Black men will spend time in U.S. prisons. By 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice ordered school districts to respond to misbehavior with non-discrimination and fairness. Educators devoted more energy to implementing culturally responsive teaching practices that combat “cultural deficit thinking.” Teachers were asked to renew their commitment to greater self-awareness of their own sociocultural expectations, beliefs, and values that influence student achievement.
At the same time, “restorative practices,” derived from effective ways to rehabilitate prisoners have become increasingly popular in schools. The Restorative Justice program in schools moves away from punishment. The focus is on restoring a sense of well-being for the student and teacher who have been affected by a hurtful act. It is a way for teachers to work through the root of disciplinary issues by building strong, productive relationships with all students of all sociocultural backgrounds.
This is especially important given that about 80 percent of all U.S. public school teachers are Caucasian, unlike the diversity of today’s student body. When teachers pay particular attention to the feelings of students, they embrace the opportunity to gain insight on how students feel personally about events that influence learning.
In Queen Anne’s County, when leadership of the Multicultural Proficiency Committee has worked to bring citizens together to talk about race, they are asking for more than an emotional exchange of experiences. Meaningful conversations about race encourage personal interaction and community building. Courageous conversations help to build positive relationships that go on to build a brighter future for all of the children in our county.
DR. MARY WILSON LEVENTHAL