A report, an email, and a public comment to the Iowa City Community School District
A little while ago, the Iowa City Mental Health, Special Education, and Disability Advocacy Group released a report on the disproportionate number of elementary school suspensions handed out to Black, poor, and disabled students.
I believe in statistics, but I’m not very good at them, so I wrote an email to the school board noting that if you kick kids out of school, there’s the logistical problem of where they go:
To the Board:
For fifteen years I worked as a public librarian in Illinois, Wyoming, and Iowa. In every place I worked, there were invariably kids hanging out in the library, all day, during the school year, on days when there was school. While libraries embrace and welcome children, they aren’t equipped to provide all the things a six or eight or ten year old needs for a full day, and thus they’re left scrambling to see what they can do.
In all that time, I never really knew why the kids were there. It is only recently that I learned that kids as young as grade school can be—and are—suspended from school. And, as the research done by the Iowa City Mental Health, Special Education, and Disability Advocacy Group makes clear, the children most affected by such suspensions (or exclusionary discipline, to use the technical term) are those already often underserved by our society: Black kids, special needs kids, and kids living in poverty.
Librarian Jessamyn West often notes that “The hardest to serve are the hardest to serve.” I would never deny the difficulty of teaching and working with youth, but whether the difficulties are caused by special needs or simply the result of implicit bias that causes us to attribute fault and “difficult behavior” to people who don’t look like us, the solution is not to remove the “problem”—the problem is when we decide that some kids deserve an education and some do not.
I conclude, as ever, with this excerpt from John Dewey that has been my guiding light as a parent and as a citizen: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.”
In the name of our community and our democracy, I call upon the ICCSD to end exclusionary discipline in elementary schools.
Now and again I like to enjoy the special form of democracy/torture that is a public school board meeting. Here is the statement I made, which you can watch if you want.
The dark. White men with beards. Fire at night. Being alone. That your mother would die. That you’d be in trouble at school. That you’d get beaten at home for being in trouble at school. Tornadoes. Being shut in a small hot dark space. That your parents would split up. That your parents would get back together. Cops. Blood. Laundromats. Being away from home. Aquariums. Nuclear war. Dogs. That the car you were riding in would go out of control. Shadows.*
Close your eyes for a moment, if you can, and think back to when you were a child. What was the most frightening thing in the world—whether it happened to you directly, or you read about it in a book or saw it in a movie, or whether you imagined it. Think back to that fear. Feel it. Now imagine that it’s happening—or something like it. What do you do?
I always tell my kid that the back part of your brain is where you go first when that fear strikes, and it tells you to fight or to run away every time it encounters a monster, or what it thinks is a monster. Part of the process of growing up is learning which things are monsters and which aren’t, and part of it is teaching the front part of your brain not to run away or to hit and kick, because for the most part, these monsters aren’t real.
Except that they are, in that moment, when you’re having that visceral reaction. And if that visceral reaction is fight, it can get you in a lot of trouble.
We’ve given you a lot of statistics to look at, and I know you have—or I hope you have—learned something about implicit bias in the past few years, if you aren’t already someone who is the target of it. But behind each statistic in that report is a kid, a kid with an entire life story that we can’t get from demographics. Every time we kick one of those kids out of school for the day, they miss out on an education—but so do we.
*Every fear on this list was specifically listed by friends and family as the thing they most feared growing up.