Sunday, October 18, 2015

We Can't Talk About Discipline Without Discussing Mental Health

I try to follow closely the discussions around school discipline including zero tolerance or "no excuses" discipline policies, restorative justice, and the school-to-prison-pipeline. I applaud many of the groups of youth, youth workers, educators, and parents working to dismantle the StPP and implement more restorative practices in our schools, especially in schools serving low income Black and Latino students. There is no question that Black and Latino youth are being mistreated by racist and misguided discipline policies.

However, I feel there is a huge piece of the conversation that is missing: mental health. As we discuss student behaviors and appropriate contexts and reactions to those behaviors, I feel like we are glossing over the very real and very serious implications of trauma, depression, or other mental health effects that are exacerbated by poverty and racial oppression. Too many of our students and their families and communities are daily being bombarded by such incredible injustice and obstacles that the mental health toll comes out in their behaviors. Children and youth are responding in very normal and predictable ways to absolutely untenable circumstances. Poverty is often racialized in our city and poverty matters.

Back last fall, I finagled my way-by  practically begging my administration-to a CPS training on Restorative Justice. It was a good training. I appreciated practice in alternative ways to handle disputes, student conflicts, and especially the focus on "repairing the harm". Instead of "punishment", students are encouraged to come up with ways to fix whatever damage their behavior caused. I could see it working for many smaller problems that arise daily in schools, teaching children and young people responsibility while giving them a voice in the matter.

But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking back to my time teaching at a psychiatric hospital. And I thought about the kinds of absolute horrors some children have been exposed to. Hearing their stories of abuse that make you want to come home and weep. Kids being exposed to all kinds of violence. Children being thrown-unwanted-around foster care and group homes. Poverty and racism were so often at the heart of these stories. Parents who sought refuge in alcohol and drugs when there are no jobs, only housing insecurity and pain available. Families ripped apart by the prison-industrial complex. Babies who watched their siblings burn to death when they were left alone in a subpar housing complex during winter. Kindergartners being shot while sitting in their living rooms.

These stories sound extreme and certainly not every child or family living in poverty experiences these types of tragedies. But far too many people do. Far too many.

Being back in a neighborhood school located in a neighborhood experiencing deep poverty, I am reminded daily how ineffective even the best-intentioned discipline strategies are.

I appreciate the fact that restorative justice advocates are trying to reduce suspensions. But who is working on addressing the underlying reasons behind tough behaviors? People, especially children, will not be cured from major PTSD or depression by good intentions. No, we should not make things even worse through punitive discipline, but let's also not pretend that switching to restorative practices is nearly enough.

I want the conversation to go deeper and get more real. Teachers are in classrooms every day having to decide how to address truly dangerous and debilitating behaviors. A peace circle is great, but it's not enough. We are experiencing concentrated negative behaviors with no where near enough resources. And school policy is creating more concentrations of poverty and further segregating our school by race, class, and ability. It's one thing to be an advocate on the outside calling for restorative practices, it's quite another to be the teacher or school staff personnel confronted daily with the behavioral realities of working with kids in deep poverty. Kids who are in a constant state of fight or flight-ready to fight at the smallest provocation. Kids who cannot sit still, cannot focus, and even with modifications and accommodations, end up monopolizing a teacher's time.

There is racism in our school discipline systems. I don't want to take anything away from that fight. I have no doubt that there are white teachers who are making racist discipline decisions which accounts for some of the disparities. But isn't a greater racism that children of color are far more likely in our city to be exposed to trauma, to toxic stress, to have a greater number of adverse childhood experiences which lead to very normal but very disruptive behaviors in schools?

Can we talk about that please?

The Ugly Truths of Choice and That Which Divides Us

I spent the summer working on the Southwest side of Chicago-knocking on doors, organizing, and helping plan education justice events. I met amazing people who care deeply about equity, about justice, about improving the educational opportunity for their children.  I saw thousands come out in support of their neighborhood schools. I heard powerful testimonies of the great work happening inside the schools from students, teachers, staff, and parents.

I had not spent a lot of time on the Southwest side before. There is so much good, so much community involvement, so much kindness. It was beautiful.

But I also saw a less attractive side of the area. The SW side has a growing Latino population which is expanding into once formerly white working class or working class sometimes poor Black communities. I saw the tensions as demographics change and the racism or prejudice that arises when people from different backgrounds mix. I met older working white people talk about "those people" (referencing the Latino population) moving in which is why the schools struggle today, how there are only a few of "us" left on the block. I heard from Latino families that would NEVER send their children to "that school" even though it is just a block away with the unspoken understanding that "that school" is where Black students go to school. I met Asians who would never send their children to the closer neighborhood high school because it had too many "bad kids", but instead send their kids farther afield to a school with more middle class and stable families. And at the heart of the battle over charter schools in the area, giving parents "the choice" to run away from the parts of the their community they don't want to associate with. The kids with behavior problems, the kids with disabilities, the kids from deeper poverty or who live in public housing.

In other words, the Southwest side is like every other corner of my hyper-segregated city: race and class throw up seemingly insurmountable divides. Selective enrollment schools certainly fill this role. They are a "life raft" for families that want nothing to do with the "others" in the city, and ostensibly serve as an anchor for the middle class. And the charter movement, at least at face value (ignoring the obvious privatization, union-busting, and profit-motives involved with charters), offer that opportunity to "escape" to more families. Because that's what's equality looks like apparently: giving all people an equal opportunity to discriminate. To divide communities. To force families into cutthroat competition for the scraps of funding allowed to trickle down to the working class.

Now the "who" parents are fleeing is subjective. Sometimes it is the racism of white families fleeing Black kids or Latino kids. Usually it is more subtle. It's about class. It's about degrees of poverty. It's about real fears for safety. A common refrain was anger over the gangs in the area. It's an understanding that a school with shrinking resources, but high special education needs, will not adequately serve all students. It's also about real and demonstrable disparities in funding in certain schools and certain areas. Schools serving more white and middle class students get more funding in this city. So do the charter schools with our ideological Mayor and Unelected School Board in charge. Parents aren't making that up.

Which is why I think it's important to say that parents aren't actually crazy to choose discrimination. It is in fact, in many ways, the only "choice" given, as neighborhood schools are defunded and sabotaged. It's a pragmatic choice.

I don't have the answers on how to overcome these barriers. But I look to the fight for Dyett High School as a beacon of hope for our divided city. The fight for the last open enrollment high school in this city's historic Bronzeville neighborhood is being fought by a coalition of people from around the city. The Hunger Strikers were predominately African-American people from the community, but they were joined by a Mexican-American man from Pilsen, by a white man from Uptown, by grad students and teachers from around the city.

The struggle is what brought this unlikely group of people together, fighting united, for a common cause. I believe it is only being a part of the struggle that will change people's hearts and minds. I've seen parent groups from the north side take up the fight for great schools for ALL children after being exposed to the savage inequalities through the struggle. I've seen African-American, Latino, White, Asian, and people of all backgrounds march united through this city for the schools Chicago's students deserve. When people across the city unite, we become a force that might actually change the realities that try to reinforce our divides.

The advocates of "choice" want us separate. They want us to fight each other. It is that competition which drives profit and the expansion of choice.  We must choose a different way.

AUSL: A Pale Immitation of Good Teaching

The other day, I was at a professional development at an elementary school near mine on the south side of Chicago. I'm a Social-Emotional Lead at my school, so once a month, we go to a different school in the Network and learn from our peers about what works in their schools. We always start the meeting with a walk-through of the school, looking for inspirational new ideas.

As we walked around this school, we entered a classroom and one colleague noted, "Oh! I love the curtains!" Another answered, "Oh, that's an AUSL thing, I bet this teacher was AUSL."

[For those readers outside Chicago, AUSL stands for the Academy of Urban School Leadership. It's a private turnaround company which our unelected school board now gives every single turnaround contract to. I'm sure that monopoly has nothing to do with the direct links of our former school board president and Chief Administrative Officer who both worked for AUSL before coming to high positions inside CPS. But hey, we're used to serious and unabashedly open corruption in our city, right Chicago?]

This remark really got me thinking. How are curtains an AUSL thing? Apparently, this private turnaround company mandates curtains in every classroom. Mandates them. They also mandate things like having plants, couches, and rugs.

I have nothing against curtains and plants in a classroom. In fact, teachers have been adding touches like that probably since forever. But what started to bother me was that AUSL was copying something they thought was good and forcing it in every classroom, which completely negates the purpose of those darn curtains: to create a homey positive environment for kids. AUSL, like so many reformy groups, completely misses the point about what makes a positive atmosphere. It's not the curtains, it's the teacher who uses little touches like curtains to foster positive relationships with students.

And AUSL is not known for it's positive teaching environments. In fact, what they are most known for is oppressive environments where students are carefully policed and pushed out and teachers are given huge workloads with little autonomy or joy.

Does AUSL somehow believe that putting up curtains is going to negate the effect of draconian relationship-destroying discipline policies? Will teachers be more likely to create deep, positive relationships with kids under strict surveillance and long lists of "non-negotiable" mandates? And how does AUSL's policy of firing at least half of the staff when they take over a building affect kids' trust in the adults in the school? You cannot build strong relationships on a foundation of intentional chaos.

Of course AUSL is not about relationships. But neoliberal edreform is all about image. If you walk into an AUSL classroom, you might think it's a beautiful place. Just don't stick around long enough observe a child being berated and ultimately pushed out of the school. Don't watch the primarily new, young teachers be beaten down daily with mandates and heavy work loads. Ignore the hyper-focus on tests scores or the inhumane "data walls" put up next to those curtains.

AUSL fakes relationships. They go through the motions of creating positive environments while stifling the actual autonomy, creativity, and joy that is necessary to build those relationships.

Like so much else in edreform, AUSL is a phony.