In 2011, Jada Williams, an eighth-grade student in Rochester, New York, wrote an essay based upon her reading of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
She compared her own experiences with the educational system to the nineteenth-century prohibitions against slaves learning how to read and write. In the words of Douglass, if he [the enslaved] knew how to read, “there [would] be no keeping him.” In Williams’ view not much had changed. Although she was living in a “different era and there were different people,” things were still the same – “the same old discrimination still resides in the heart of the white man.” She placed these teachers and her life at one end of the continuum and Douglass’ on the other. A century after Douglass, instead of being barred from being taught literacy skills de jure, Williams experienced a de facto ban from learning how to read and write. She was in school, but the classrooms were filled with white teachers who were unwilling to teach, tedious worksheets, poor classroom management, and frustrated students suffering from either boredom or confusion.
For white teachers to be able to be in a position of power to dictate what I can, cannot and will learn, only desiring that I may get bored because of the inconsistency and the mis-management of the classroom and remain illiterate and ignorant; or better yet distracted because some children decide to misbehave because they don’t understand, and (sic.) ashamed to ask for help.
In this essay, she executed an impassioned and brave indictment of her white teachers for denying her and her peers access to a decent education. After illustrating the similarities, Williams wrote a call to action as her conclusion, one that encouraged her peers to hold teachers accountable and to become active learners.
Williams received two different responses to her essay. The Frederick Douglass Foundation, a conservative organization, awarded Williams their first Spirit of Freedom award. By contrast, her teachers and administrators disciplined her, instead of considering Williams’ analysis or perhaps investigating the validity of her argument as she hoped.
What ensued is emblematic of what many children of color experience today. Almost immediately, the staff labeled Williams a “problem” and “angry.” She received D’s, although prior to the essay she had consistently earned A’s. She received disciplinary threats and actions for behaviors such as “laughing in class.” This harassment finally forced her to transfer to another school. Eventually, Williams was pushed out of the district altogether. Although Williams’ essay may have been exceptionally poignant and candid, her experience with school discipline is not anomalous.
Throughout the United States, students of color, particularly Black and Latino youths, are more often suspended, expelled, policed, and arrested than their counterparts. Contemporary discipline policies, called zero-tolerance policies, were initially created to prevent students from bringing guns or weapons to school. Today, students are increasingly being suspended for behavioral “problems” such as truancy and disobedience.
These experiences of being criminalized, disciplined, and punished by school authorities negatively impact the students’ academic trajectories, life chances, and subjectivities. Unsurprisingly, Black and Latino youths are disproportionately represented in school discipline data. Their numbers mirror the disparities in incarceration rates.
Scholars and activists have examined prisons as violent institutions. For instance and most recently, sociologist Beth Richie argued that prisons help to produce, and are sites of, violence against women of color. Motivated by what has been called the “school to prison pipeline” (the theory that schools funnel children into prison), more activists, scholars, and researchers are examining the problem of racial disparities in school discipline numbers. The federal government has begun to intervene in school districts alleged to racially discriminate in discipline policies. Alternative school discipline/violence prevention practices and programs have been developed in order to curtail overreliance on suspensions and expulsions.
A number of these programs provide conflict resolution training, life skills development, and counseling services to marginalized youths. Other strategies include restorative justice programs that teach students about communication and accountability. Many of these alternative programs focus on teaching “at-risk” youths how to manage their feelings more effectively by employing “positive” mediums such as poetry or jobs skills development. The logic behind these violence prevention strategies, it seems, is that if children of color learn how to manage their behavior and feelings better, it is less likely that they will be disciplinary problems. While it is valuable that these programs may serve to alleviate tensions between youths, when done without a political purpose, these can have the effect of policing children’s feelings and temper a kind of rage that is actually necessary to incite political resistance.
Under a neoliberal context, which favors criminalization and incarceration over social welfare services and policies, support for discipline reforms can be considered a necessary shift in social and political priorities. Unfortunately, these violence prevention reforms are problematizing the children instead addressing a systemic problem. Under traditional school discipline policies, most students get into trouble for nonviolent behaviors and as a result of racial biases. Most of the efforts and even the popular ethos of society are more inclined to locate the problem with the children, their lack of guidance, their parents, their tempers, their culture, and their socio-economic status. Instead of implicating the social, political, and economic contexts that may propel children to act out or the racial/gendered phobic impulse to characterize the child as a problem and then legitimize punishing her, the child is the problem.
Few if any current discipline reform strategies identify school discipline policies and violence prevention policies as instruments of structural and institutional forms of violence. Even fewer examine racial and gendered violence as dimensions of the policies.
By focusing the gaze toward students, other forms of violence are obfuscated including the violence sanctioned by the schools and enacted by law enforcement. For instance, despite beatings and murders committed by police officers who have been deputized to assist with school discipline, school violence prevention and discipline policies, even when reformed, do not generally highlight police as instruments of violence. Discipline policies that target sexual harassment have not examined the explicit forms of sexual harassment performed by those that are authorized to regulate and discipline young people.
According to the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (2007), a 14 year-old female student reported that a ‘security guard accused [her] of having a knife…They took [her] to a room and made [her] take off [her] shirt and pants to check [her] bra. They didn’t call [her] parents or let [her] talk to a teacher [she] knew. [She] didn’t have a knife just like [she] told them’ (23).
Neither does violence prevention include efforts to address other forms of harassment, including sexual harassment, that students receive almost every day from some of their teachers and other faculty.
Put differently, as we focus on the problem of the student something disappears from our framework: In a society that is shaped by racial and gendered violence, schools, including their teachers, officers, and policies, have long been afforded the discretion to punish, police, and harass students of color. If there are students of color to police then the job implicitly includes this function. Whether the teachers and other staff consciously or unconsciously know or actually do it, they are authorized to perform this duty. In other words, alternative violence programs that do not center the problem of society replicate the violence of the zero tolerance.
What gets missed in the student-focused disciplinary approach is a structural concern: Many groups of color exist within a context where their lives simply do not matter. Little credit is given to the child who is trying to understand and navigate through this reality. Instead, when a child finds the words to aptly describe what she experiences, as in the case of Williams, she faces hostility from her teachers and administrators.
Racialized and Gendered Violence
At the same time that these communities of color are criminalized, disciplined, and punished, their various experiences with violence often fail to qualify as “violence.” Instead, sometimes the violence they experience simply does not matter. For example, although nearly 40 percent of all missing persons in the United States are people of color (33 percent of those missing are Black), critics report “that most media attention is reserved for white women.”
In particular, the layers of violence to which girls of color are subject,  especially those who are labeled defiant or problematic, are unintelligible and negligible. Many of the young girls of color, those who are formally and informally labeled as problems, are vulnerable to multiple layers of violence – institutional, state, and interpersonal forms of violence. These forms of violence are not limited to welfare policies, hyper-surveillance, and mass incarceration; they include sexual assaults and murders by community members, partners, and strangers.
There is also the violence of the social order that positions them to be the receptacles for racist and misogynistic projections. These fantasies are foregrounded in anxieties and insecurities that extend far beyond the girls and anything they could have possibly done wrong. Some young women of color, particularly Black girls, are rendered intolerable because they are imagined to embody the set of morals, ethics, and needs that threaten the sanctity of White civil society.
Among a number of offensive characterizations, the girl of color can be perceived as too angry, defiant, despondent, and critical. She is also imagined as a subject that illegitimately takes from society, its institutions, and good people. At the same time as she extracts resources from society, she is ungrateful for its generosity. Other times, she is too private, foreign, alienating, and unapproachable. She is dispensable. She simply does not play well with White people. She is aproblem.
The impulse to characterize her in these scathing terms complements the drive to neglect her, rendering insignificant the complexities of her existence and needs. Little or no attention is paid to her life, what it means or entails. Generally speaking, discipline policies and violence prevention reform are not meant to recognize these girls’ lives. They often invisibilize the girl of color whose life and subjectivity are affected by the interlock between layers of violence. Instead, discipline policies and their alternatives steer the gaze away from a society that sanctions and performs racial and gendered violence. Society and its schools compulsively organize around containing, disciplining, and reforming the girls of color it has problematized and criminalized. This is done in order to legitimize the hegemony of the social hierarchy and its institutions.
Williams’ story illustrates the need to examine racial disparities in school discipline policies. However, because her story is not anomalous and mirrors a historical and structural condition, the discipline policies and the efforts to reform them have to be contextualized beyond this moment. The problem is with an atemporal coercive society shaped by racial and gendered violence, which authorizes teachers, administrators, and other faculty, including law enforcement officials, to police, harass, and punish those it deems a problem.
In order to address the problems with school discipline policies and their effects, perhaps we should start with examining the racial and gendered forms of violence that undergird them.
 While Black youth make up 17 percent of the student population, they are 37 percent of the students who are penalized by suspensions and 43 percent of the students expelled (Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection 2012)
 See Sudbury, J. Global lockdown : Race, gender, and the prison-industrial complex. New York: Routledge and Richie, B. (2012). Arrested justice : Black women, violence, and America’s prison nation. New York: New York University Press.
 For the sake of this essay, I use this term to include cis and trans gendered females of color. I currently use “woman of color” even though I am working examining the politics of “women of color.” I believe that a more nuanced analysis of this term is necessary, one that includes scales of differences within and between groups of Black and non-Black women of color, including the racialized ways in which gender is understood, performed but also denied and prohibited.
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Connie Wun, Ph.D., has worked as a high school teacher, sexual assault counselor and youth advocate. Her research interests include the politics of school discipline and punishment, racial and gender violence, psychoanalysis and critical theory in education.