By | Erin Pier
My role as an educator is an unusual one. As the Director of Advocacy at AUL Denver (a DPS charter school, former Academy of Urban Learning), my primary responsibility is to provide court and probation support for students facing charges. At AUL, our mission is to dismantle the school-to-prison-pipeline, and to be seen by the courts as an alternative to juvenile incarceration. Currently, I serve approximately 10 percent of AUL’s 150 students.
In reading the articles from the Denver Journal of Education and Community on Student Safety, I find myself in agreement with much of the community’s reflections: safety is largely perceived. Race relations are inextricably connected with power relations. Psychological safety is imperative. So much of what the community is seeing
resonates with my everyday observations.
In my opinion, the root of many of the safety issues mentioned by the community, though not directly named, is implicit bias. Implicit bias is behind SROs who search and surveil, teachers who fail to authentically connect with students, and why DPS struggles to retain teachers of color. It fuels the discomfort and anxiety that community members report feeling when educators do not share their same cultural identity or background, and it’s something we don’t talk about enough.
What is implicit bias?
Implicit bias is defined as the mental process that causes us to have negative feelings and attitudes about people–based on characteristics like race, ethnicity, age and appearance–of which we are not consciously aware.
When white teachers allow unchecked biases to guide them, they may assume negative intentions when dealing with challenging behavior. Researcher Halley Potter summarized this succinctly: if a white, preschool-aged child were to bite another child, the white teacher may recognize the behavior as familiar – similar to her niece or nephew. She may respond by recognizing that the child is struggling with communication, and offering support. If the child is Black or brown, however, the teacher might make assumptions, and think, “this is the beginning of aggressive behavior and the child needs discipline.”
The impact of such bias leads to the suspension and expulsion of students of color at a rate three times greater than white students, despite similar, if not identical, infractions.
For many students, challenging behaviors in school are directly correlated to a lack of feeling safe.
Perhaps they feel unsafe at home or in their community. Perhaps they’ve witnessed violence or experienced abuse. In any case, they come to school seeking safety. Yet often they are met with teachers and staff who believe the worst about student intentions and meet mistakes with punitive consequences as opposed to grace, understanding and education. Schools are rejecting students for their behavior, and what is rejection if not the ultimate blow to psychological safety?
Failing to create safe community
Over the years, I’ve gotten in the habit of asking each of my students to reflect on their earliest negative experiences in school. Without fail, they point to a behavior event (e.g., fighting, biting, kicking) that occurred in early elementary, resulting in suspension. After they recount this experience, I ask, “What was happening in your life at that time?” They pause. No one has asked them this before.
What I hear from students is a range of experiences,
-My mom told me in the car…
-My house was robbed…
-My dad was killed…
-My mom was…
-Both my parents were…
-I got taken…
-I didn’t have…
-I didn’t know…
The stories are endless. Every single one centers a young child deep in crisis trying to make sense of their lived
experience. These kids are brilliant, creative, thoughtful, reflective and so kind. And before they were eight,
they were written off by teachers because of troubling behaviors that were a direct reflection of what was going on in their lives. They were experiencing emotions they didn’t yet have the words to explain. Their educators did not ask them what motivated negative classroom behavior. They just punished them for doing it.
Schools have an opportunity to be a safe haven, a community for students who aren’t finding safety outside of school walls, and a place to maintain safety for those who are. We have a chance to humanize student behavior and provide tools for healing and growth.
Until we challenge educators to check their own biases, we’ll be unable to build trusting and safe communities with our
students. But once we do, I believe schools can feel safer than ever before.