“He was suspended for three days,” relayed the black mother who shared her story with me last year. The education organization I lead, The Expectations Project, was in the midst of a campaign to eliminate racial disparities in school punishments. This mom recounted the circumstances that led to her seven-year old, whom I’ll call Bobby, being suspended from school. A white female student in his class had a crush on him and gave him a classic ‘I like you’ hit on the arm aboard the school bus. Bobby, being an ordinary kid, hit her back. An investigation ensued. The little girl and her parents even came to Bobby’s defense, saying that she’d started it and if anyone should get punished, it should be her. He was suspended for three days and she was not. Bobby’s mom said, “This happens so much. I don’t know how we fight it. So many people just look at our black kids and see criminals.”
This story is not an isolated incident. Black students nationwide are 3.9 times more likely to get suspended than white students. And they are often punished more harshly for the same infraction. How are we to make sense of this inequality? How can the church be a force for change? And what are the connections to broader racial unrest we’ve experienced over the past several months?
This summer brought the all-too-familiar heartbreaking stories of black people dying at the hands of police officers. Somehow this season of racial injustice feels different. Perhaps the COVID-19 pandemic had already heightened our senses to seemingly invisible threats, providing the necessary catalyst to spark nationwide protests after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s deaths. Previously silent communities marched in surprising solidarity with black and brown brothers and sisters.
I am encouraged by the ever-widening array of potential allies, which must further mobilize to address the school-to-prison pipeline. Students who are suspended or expelled from school are four times as likely to interact with the justice system as teens and adults. We cannot fix the schools and not fix the justice system. School disciplinary tactics often mirror the same race-based assumptions we see in policing. The two are inextricably linked.
Biblical Restorative Justice
Confronted with the overwhelming pattern of black students being suspended and expelled more often than white students, it’s tempting to assume it’s the result of individual behavior problems rather than institutional or systemic bias. Are we, as Christians, to believe black children and teens are born with a greater capacity for malevolence than children of other races? Let that sink it for a moment. Say it out loud. I hope it makes you uncomfortable, because it should. How can you reconcile our ‘made in the image of God’ theology with the idea that an entire race is born with a stronger disposition for misbehavior? You can’t.
Once we concede these patterns don’t rest solely on student behavior, we are open to understanding ways in which singular or system-wide bias inadvertently impacts our educational system. Christians should speak out boldly to demand change within systems that have disparate outcomes based on the color of a child’s skin.
The arc of the entire biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, is about God’s grace. He runs after us to restore us to himself. He sent Jesus to die on the cross and save us from our sins, even though we did nothing to earn it. He wants us to be in relationship with him, not separated from his love. If we are called to help God’s kingdom to be revealed on earth—in every system and structure—how can we stand for a public school system that provides more restoration and grace for white students than it does for black students? And, even more importantly, why wouldn’t we want to give children the same second (and third, fourth, and fifth) opportunities for restoration that God gives us?
Restorative School Discipline
Christians have the opportunity to be at the forefront of the movement for restorative school discipline. Restorative discipline is a mindset shift. It moves from thinking about discipline as punishment and retribution to discipline as an opportunity for transformation and embrace. This does not mean we forgo consequences for misbehavior. But we can advocate for practices such as in-school spaces where learning continues despite a misbehaving child being removed temporarily from the classroom. If a child’s misbehavior stems from some type of emotional trauma or mental health challenges, we secure resources to help the student and their family get needed healing rather than simply suspending them.
When I think about the transformational impact Christians have had on adult prison reform by championing organizations like Prison Fellowship, I easily imagine what we can do for teens and little children. How can we not want the same for seven-year-old Bobby and the youngest among us?
Practically, I encourage Christians to take the following steps:
- Seek to understand: How are discipline issues handled in your local school district? To what extent are there different rates of suspensions and expulsions for different racial groups of students? Why do teachers, administrators, parents, and students think that is happening?
- Educate others: Share what you learn with your church and groups of friends.
- Advocate for change: Speak out to ensure your local schools have adequate school counselors and restorative discipline practices and policies.
On a personal note, I feel this injustice very deeply. As the mother of a 14-year-old black daughter, I pray every day that teachers, store clerks, and police officers do not view her as a sassy threat or an angry black woman. What tragedy might occur if they allow any unconscious bias to unfairly escalate their interactions with her? We pray they instead see her beautiful humanity made in God’s image. What I want for my daughter I want for all of God’s children in our nation’s schools.
Nicole Baker Fulgham is the founder and president of The Expectations Project, which is the nation's largest network of faith-motivated education equity advocates. A former public school teacher, education policy analyst, and teacher trainer, Nicole writes and speaks on the intersection of faith, education, equality, and race.