What’s the appropriate consequence to take when two students are having a staring contest?
The parents of the suspended student have been seeking to have the one-day suspension, which was issued last year, removed from their 12-year-old son’s school record, but an Ohio court upheld the suspension and dismissed the family’s complaint against the school.
Their son, who is black, was suspended because he is accused of intimidation against the white girl with whom he was having a staring contest — and who was apparently giggling the whole time. (Not that people never nervously giggle when they’re scared, but to suggest that he should have somehow magically guessed that a pretty common childhood game was suddenly terrifying is, frankly, bizarre.) Not only was the boy suspended for a day from school, but he also had to write what is a pretty heartbreaking letter of apology to his classmate:
“I never knew she was scared because she was laughing…I understand I done the wrong thing that will never happen again. I will start to think before I do so I am not in this situation.”
Having been a teacher myself, I have to say I have a lot of trouble wrapping my head around the idea that the appropriate next step to take when one middle schooler is looking at another weirdly is to suspend him. Yes, this is a private school, and as the school handbook points out, discipline is at the discretion of the administration. Technically the school has the right to suspend the child at the drop of a hat.
But when the justification has to start with “technically,” you have to know you’re not standing on morally sound ground. And any first-year education student should be able to recognize this as some fundamentally unsound classroom management practice too. “Hey, stop staring at each other” — that would be a pretty good start. Maybe move some desks around if it goes on, then call home if the students can’t leave each other alone during class time. Suspension is a pretty big leap for mere looks, especially since, according to the suspended boy’s mother, the female student involved here went punishment free for pouring out her milk on another student’s lunch. No, consistency and proportionate consequences definitely aren’t important factors in running a middle school. That sounds great.
Across the country, children of color are disproportionately suspended compared to their white peers, and for much more minor infractions. When staring is judged as suspension worthy, but ruining another child’s lunch doesn’t warrant punishment, it’s hard not to think that there’s something else going on besides the infractions themselves.
More: Schools suspend black preschoolers at alarming rates
Whatever the school was thinking, they’re the ones who owe this child an apology letter, not the other way around. He’s been subjected to the ideas that his body is “intimidating” and that he’s responsible for the adults in his life treating him poorly. And those are not lessons any school should be teaching.