First Person

An overlooked part of fixing school discipline policies: reducing fear

Last month, I walked into a public high school in the Bronx and could tell right away that something had happened. I had spent four months working as a behavior management coach at the school, and this time the atmosphere felt unusually charged.

I learned that earlier in the week, fights in the hallway had prompted administrators to call the police. The officers swarmed in and used pepper spray to break up the fights. A few minutes later, the bell rang and several hundred students walked into hallways that still stung of pepper spray and rage.

While the students were angry, they were not surprised to see police officers in their school.  “They treat us like animals,” one student told me. “It just seems like everyone is so afraid of us.”

I’ve heard variations on that line in many schools, where administrators have justified and perpetuated harsh discipline systems by viewing children as hooligans who need to be policed in order to protect the school.

The negative effect of harsh discipline on school climate has been the focus of conversations on a national and local level this year. In January, the Obama administration issued guidelines calling for an end to zero-tolerance policies—which impose uniform and swift punishments for disciplinary infractions—in our nation’s schools, citing the disproportionate suspension of young men of color. Just last week, schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said she wanted to shift school discipline away from punitive policies and toward restorative justice.

These efforts are long overdue, but they are only one part of what needs to happen to reverse the culture of distrust and criminalization of students that has become the modus operandi of many urban schools. Equally important is the way teachers understand misbehavior and interact with their toughest students.

As a former high school administrator in the Bronx, and now as a behavior management coach with the organization Ramapo for Children, I see that behavior issues don’t happen because kids are hooligans. They happen because students are trying to tell us something. Often students don’t have the skills to express themselves, or they hesitate to speak up because they’re put on the defensive from the moment they walk into the building.

Over time, I’ve come to see misbehavior as a form of communication. Sometimes students are telling us that they are hungry or tired. When kids act out, they are telling us that there is an unmet need or a lagging social or emotional skill that they don’t know how to fix.

I don’t mean to minimize the challenges these behaviors present for teachers and for other students. Sometimes desks are thrown and students fight. Nearly every day, students use disrespectful language and don’t follow directions.

But blaming students for their behavior, and for struggles of the school as a whole, doesn’t help. Nor does suspending them for minor infractions. Helping students means using strategies like giving them breaks to cool down when they are responding to stressful situations, and letting them explain themselves before we react to their behavior. It means building relationships with students by greeting them individually, acknowledging their strengths, and purposefully reinforcing positive behaviors.

We also have to recognize that the students we’re working with are often put on the defensive from the moment they walk in the door.

Many students in New York City public schools begin their mornings in the same way: mobbed up outside of the building, waiting to go through a scanning machine and be wanded by uniformed safety officers. They are scanned for weapons and cell phones as exhausted administrators and safety officials bark at them to remove their belts, keys, boots, bobby pins and MetroCards while they wait in line.

As an administrator, I used to stand outside the building with my students as they were waiting to go inside. There were always a few moments of calm as they waited for scanning to open, but before long I would hear over the radio that a student was upset over having to remove his boots or hand over his cell phone.  I would be informed that this child needed to be removed from the line before he “gets himself arrested.” With that, our day would begin.

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First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.