My introduction to racial justice work grew out of my experience with my son in preschool. I was attending Wright State University, so I had access to its private preschool. Most of the African American children in the preschool had parents who were university students. I was upbeat and excited to have my son, Amir, on campus with me while I was attending school, and I felt safer knowing he would be close to me on campus. I wasn’t political. I didn’t think about race. I was just living my life, going to school, and working full time.
The problems began right away. The preschool gave me a hard time enrolling him in the first place. Then in the first week, I started to receive phone calls from the preschool staff telling me, “He had a temper tantrum today. He’s not wanting to transition from one activity to another.”
“Is that not normal?” I replied. “Is that not something that your teachers can deal with?”
Then the preschool asked me to have Amir evaluated. Evaluated for what? It was as if he was a guinea pig. The staff told me, “We have a school of professional psychology here and they have students. They can come over with their instructor and they’ll just observe him. They’ll see if there are any services that he needs.”
“Services? Evaluation? Psychology?” I responded. “What’s wrong with him?”
“We just feel like he’s having some trouble transitioning,” they said. “He’s biting other students.” They made normal 3-year-old behavior sound very pathologized and abnormal.
I felt uncomfortable about all this, so I went to see Amir’s pediatrician. She advised me against doing the evaluation, because she worried that he would be labeled. When I reported this to the school, they were livid. It was as if I had broken some rule by getting a second opinion. Having preschool students evaluated seemed to be almost routine for them.
The preschool scheduled a meeting with me, during which they presented paperwork that was all ready for me to sign. I was told that if Amir had a disability or was identified as having something wrong with him, then he could go to a public preschool for free wherever I lived. It was as if they were selling me on this idea, like it was a win-win: We get him out of here and you don’t have to pay.
I refused to sign. I did my own observation. I wanted to see for myself what was going on. I saw that my son looked just like any other child in there. He was exhibiting the same behaviors as other children.
My pediatrician, who is an African immigrant, told me, “I’ve had the same problems with my son. If there are any other problems, come to me first.” She added, “They don’t understand Black boys or Black children.”
That’s when the race question came up for me. I went to the university library and did a literature search about Black boys and education. It turns out that there is a lot of research on the subject.
I suddenly realized that I wasn’t a bad parent and my son wasn’t abnormal. This was something larger, more societal that was happening to African American parents.
That’s when I began organizing.
Meanwhile, the preschool threatened that if I didn’t sign the papers, my son would be expelled. So I just took him out of the preschool, which meant I had to drop out of college. I decided to prioritize my son’s needs.
Schools Are Not Working for Black Children
The data shows schools are not working for Black children, especially for Black boys. A report by Learn to Earn Dayton showed something startling and heartbreaking: Here in Montgomery County, where I live, Black boys have the worst academic outcomes regardless of income. Even Black boys from more affluent families have lower 3rd-grade reading proficiency scores and lower high school graduation rates than their peers, with poor Black boys at the very bottom. That legitimizes the work of Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu and other scholars who have been saying for years that our children learn differently. In Understanding Black Male Learning Styles, Dr. Kunjufu explains that many Black boys are hands-on, experiential learners, while schools emphasize visual-print learning; they are also kinesthetic learners, needing to move around a lot, while schools want students to sit quietly at their desks.
I’m still dealing with the implications of these learning differences with my son, who’s in 4th grade now. I’m trying to counter what he’s hearing at school, where he’s getting the message that “It’s you — you’re the problem. You were just born this way and you’re not making it.”
My son says, “Mom, I’m bad. I’m always getting in trouble.” His trouble stems from the fact that he is a kinesthetic learner and needs to move around a lot. I found out from the other parents who had Black boys with the same behavior or personality as my son — kids who are energetic, who know what they want, who have strong personality traits — that they had the same experience. I was coming to the realization that schools — regardless of whether they are urban, rural, or suburban — are not working for Black children.
On the advice of Dr. Kunjufu, I put my son in an all-male public school for kindergarten. The teacher was an African American male, an anomaly in American education. When Amir started, I tried to prepare the teacher by telling him what my son was like.
“He’s energetic. He loves to move,” I told him.
Days went by and I did not get a phone call. I thought something was not right — these people weren’t calling me about Amir.
So I decided to stop by one day. I walked in and found the class loud and vibrant. They were learning the alphabet to a hip-hop DVD written by Nikki Giovanni, the famous African American poet. The kids were jumping up and down and clapping — “A, B, C!”
It was a class full of Black boys in an all-Black school, and the teacher was Black. It was the total opposite of what my son and I had previously experienced. After things settled down and the children were transitioning to lunch, I asked the teacher, “How is Amir doing?”
“Oh, he’s great,” he replied. “He’s one of my best students.”
Nobody had ever said that about my son to me, ever. I still get emotional when I think about it. To this day, I think kindergarten was the best experience Amir has had in school.
A Human Rights Crisis
I ended up filing a complaint against the Wright State University preschool with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. I knew Vernellia Randall, who is now an emeritus professor at the University of Dayton School of Law. She told me that she didn’t think I was going to get the result — a change in how the preschool treated Black families — I was looking for and that cases like mine often take years.
Instead, Randall offered another option. She said that we needed to organize. We needed to call a meeting and see if we could get other parents to join us to change policy. We needed to be explicit that this was a racial justice issue. That led to our founding of the Racial Justice NOW! organization in her living room.
Randall and I divided up tasks. I organized and talked to parents, and she mined data and analysis. I had dropped out of school, so I used my time to go to my son’s preschool and talk to parents during drop-offs and pickups. If they were Black parents, most of the time they had some issue with the school — especially if they had boys.
As Professor Randall gathered the data and I collected the stories, it became clear that the bias and mistreatment of Black children in schools is a human rights crisis.
Organizing for Change in Dayton and Across Ohio
Racial Justice NOW! joined the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), a national coalition of grassroots organizing groups and legal advocacy organizations. That was very important because DSC had already done a lot of research and had resources for us to use. We adapted DSC’s model code of conduct — which documents the harmful effects of harsh and racially inequitable school discipline policies and suggests alternatives, such as positive behavioral supports and restorative justice — and took it to the Dayton school board. We also held one-on-one meetings with the superintendent, the superintendent’s lawyer, and the board president. I told my own story, and we brought along parents who had similar stories.
When we presented school officials with their own data that the district had reported to the state, they were shocked and embarrassed. We pointed out that Dayton was one of only three school districts in Ohio that were expelling preschoolers. Dayton’s out-of-school suspension rate was four times the state average.
We also found indicators of racial disparities. Black children made up 64 percent of the district’s students but 80 percent of those suspended. Black boys with disabilities were the most suspended and expelled in the school district. While poor Black boys were suspended the most, even middle-class Black boys were suspended at higher rates than any other group.
We received a lot of media coverage and made the front page of the Dayton Daily News. That’s how we moved the ball as quickly as we did.
School district officials, perhaps because they were afraid of legal problems, started to pay attention and make changes. They acted on nearly all of our demands. They agreed to publish discipline data on their website so that parents could access it easily. In addition, the district implemented a moratorium on suspension for pre–K students, though they did not extend that through 3rd grade as we had hoped. We had the zero-tolerance language taken out of the student code of conduct. They agreed to our demand to end suspensions for disruptive behavior, which is a catchall category for which most students were suspended. At the time, disruptive behavior was a level 2 infraction, which warrants an out-of-school suspension. We pushed them to change it to a level 1 infraction, where alternatives to suspension must be implemented first. Thanks to our efforts, the district agreed to stop suspending students for smoking tobacco and cursing. We won all these changes in one year.
The next school year, the district agreed to hire restorative justice coordinators for 10 schools. We wanted coordinators because we heard that teachers did not know what to do with disruptive behavior and felt they lacked support for alternative strategies. The coordinators work with young people, create a special room where young people can take a break, and lead restorative justice circles with peers and the teacher if necessary. The following year, the teacher union demanded that these coordinators be unionized teachers, so the coordinators became positive school climate teachers. The district planned to add teachers to 10 more schools in 2018.
In 2016, Racial Justice NOW! successfully lobbied Dayton Public Schools to create an Office for Males of Color. Dayton became the third district in the country to establish such an office, after Oakland and Minneapolis. For the first time, the school district is going to focus on the experiences of Black boys in a positive and constructive way.
The organization didn’t stop there. We created discipline report cards for 1,100 school districts across the state of Ohio. We gave a letter grade to each district for their performance in three areas: the rate of suspensions and expulsions, with penalties for high rates of suspension in pre–K to 3rd grade and 7th to 9th grade; the proportion of suspensions for reasons that are subjective evaluations such as “disruptive behavior”; and the racial disparities in suspensions at all grade levels. Suspensions in pre–K to 3rd grade are a serious indicator of harsh and racially inequitable discipline practices. And research shows that children who are suspended in 9th grade are twice as likely to not graduate as their peers, while almost 70 percent of Black boys without a high school degree will end up in prison at some point in their lives. In Ohio, 90 percent of school districts received a failing grade in the 2012–13 school year; only 6.4 percent of schools received a grade of B- or higher.
Some of the superintendents in suburban districts were outraged about the report card. The schools in these districts normally get As on their academic report cards, but they received Fs on our school discipline report card, mostly because of racial disparity. These are schools that do not have a lot of children of color, but they disproportionately suspend and expel those who are there.
Racial Justice NOW! also helped to push House Bill 410, which decriminalized truancy in the state of Ohio. Previously, if children failed to attend school for too many days, the children and their families were referred to juvenile court. Now an intervention team works with the family first to determine the reasons for truancy and to find solutions.
The Dignity in Schools Campaign was the single greatest resource we had. DSC provided us with information and useful resources, such as the model code of conduct. They connected us to opportunities to apply for small grants. DSC’s field organizer visited us and helped provide our parents with training in organizing strategy. They gave us the chance to bring our voices to Washington, D.C., when we participated in DSC’s Days at the Capitol to lobby our congressional representatives on school discipline issues. Perhaps most importantly, DSC connected us to a network of like-minded groups in communities across the country. We could get advice from these other organizations and learn what worked and what didn’t work. That has been invaluable for a startup organization like ours that’s led by young people and parents who are directly impacted.
Black Parents at the Forefront
It’s extremely important for parents of color, specifically Black parents, to be at the forefront of movements for educational justice. We need more support for parents to come out of the shadows of shame and inferiority and break the negative stereotype of Black parents. The myth of our not caring about our children’s education needs to be shattered.
One of the ways we can do that is to help lift up the voices of parents of color all around the country. Their voices need to be brought out and cultivated. They need to be heard. That is what we are doing in Racial Justice NOW! and in the Dignity in Schools Campaign.
Sometimes organizations that advocate for Black parents try to speak for them. But we need to have actual parents at the table who have experienced school failure and racial disparities and mistreatment firsthand. They should help inform policy. Their lived experiences make them experts. We need to speak up about what we know, what our needs are, what our demands are, and how we can make schools work for our children.
Teachers go into education because they love kids. They want to help students learn and reach their fullest potential. But because of the legacy of institutional racism and of dehumanizing Black people in this country, even teachers who want to help have their own biases. If you are a white teacher working in a school that is 99 percent Black, how do you check those biases? Do you even want to?
I’ve tried to show my son’s teachers that we are human. He has parents who love him and support him. He is not abnormal. He is not somebody you should be afraid of.
But I can’t make a teacher love my son.
Amir is in 4th grade now, and this school year has been one of the most difficult. No matter what I do, I can’t make the teacher see us differently. I can’t make her love Amir. I can’t make her see him as an energetic 9-year-old boy who has some leadership qualities that she could cultivate instead of viewing him as a menace or a nuisance.
One of the things I struggle with most is that there are no schools in this community — public, private, or charter — that work for my son. Living with that reality has been mentally draining. I feel that my work is not enough, that I’m not organizing enough people. I can never do enough, because I feel like the Black community is in a state of crisis when it comes to education. I feel angry sometimes that there is not more outrage. We keep seeing these reports and this data, but nobody is up in arms. We need to make some drastic changes right now.
For the vast majority of our community, the abnormal has been normalized — that is, Black children, especially boys, will routinely be suspended and labeled “failures” at school. I feel isolated because I refuse to let it be normalized. I know this is not normal. I know it is not right. I want to jolt the consciousness of our parents in our community to not accept the abnormal as normal.
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar is the co-founder of Racial Justice NOW! and national field organizer at Dignity in Schools Campaign (Contact Me).
A version of this article was published in the book Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement (Beacon Press — www.liftusupmovement.org).