Students of Color Bear Brunt of School Discipline, Identity Bullying, Boston Forum Says

By Annika Chaves

A black marker squeaks along the bottom of a whiteboard then stops. Eight words appeared at the bottom of the board.

“Give all students, especially Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, opportunities to succeed.”

Eliza Davern capped the marker, and Mirian Albert began posing questions to people seated in chairs arranged in a circle. Both helped organize the community meeting to lead a catalytic conversation about dismantling inequities in education.

“Public education should be a space where children, no matter their racial or ethnic background, feel safe and can thrive,” said Albert, a staff attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights, which held the forum at the central branch of the Boston Public Library recently.

The forum, coming amid a national debate on school discipline and school policing, focused on disciplinary actions, identity based bullying and barriers for English learners, issues that largely affect students of color disproportionately, organizers said.

“We wanted to …get a community pulse and see what issues people are seeing,” said Davern, who works as an assistant at Lawyers for Civil Rights.

The need for hosting the forum first came to the organization’s attention when officials  noticed an uptick in students of color experiencing identity based-bullying — being targeted because of their race.

Students of color were seven times more likely to be suspended than white students, according to Lawyers for Civil Rights, citing recent research.

“It’s widely known that students of color are disciplined more harshly than their white counterparts,” Davern said. “That means that these students are not receiving the same education that their peers are.”

Albert said some of her clients who attend vocational high schools reported that they were being suspended for long periods of time over minor infractions — an “isolating” experience that makes it more difficult for them to catch up on work and maintain their grades.

“Sometimes it seems to students that there wasn’t a clear system as to why they were being suspended or for why proper procedures weren’t being followed,” said Albert.

Repeatedly taking certain students out of the classroom not only limits accessibility to equal education, but also affects how they are perceived by others and even themselves, said Haluwa Doherty, a second year Boston College law student.

Doherty, who attended the event, said coming back from suspensions often leaves students of color feeling “anxious” and “embarrassed” when they realize they aren’t able to keep up with their peers or have teachers “vouching” for them.

“You become ‘other,’ she said. “You become known as the problematic student.”

Inequities in school discipline have long been an issue across the state, with some Boston officials arguing that more policing is needed in the school buildings, while others contend that an over-reliance on police only helps to criminalize students of color.

Lawyers for Civil Rights officials had sent a letter to Superintendent Mary Skipper arguing that the schools have gone “too far” with disciplining students of color.

They said school authorities should find other creative ways, including more mental health support, “trauma informed care,” and teacher diversity to better connect with students.

“We are a society that loves to just put a Band-Aid on bullet wounds and we refuse to dig deeper into the causes,” she said.

While the organization has yet to hear back from Skipper, the lawyers’ group said they are continuing to partner with community allies such as Sociedad Latina and others to ensure that students have the support they need.

“There are a lot of ways that people could harness the power of the students in the community to work more in unison versus against each other,” Davern said.

This story was published in collaboration with Boston University’s Department of Journalism in the College of Communication. The student journalist is a member of a Reporting in Depth class taught by former Boston Globe reporter Meghan Irons.

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