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Punishment & Racial Bias In Schools: One mom’s story of fighting for her son’s rights and education

Punishment & Racial Bias In Schools: One mom’s story of fighting for her son’s rights and education

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Kia Levey Burden has an important story to tell about fighting for her son’s needs at school. Professionally, Kia has spent her career advocating for children and families facing barriers created by institutional bias and racism. She is a professor of Social Work at Southern Connecticut State University, works with the Center for Children’s Advocacy, is an Equity Fellow at the Graustein Memorial Fund and is President of Launch Consulting. None of her degrees or extensive work experience fully prepared her to deal with the patterns of unjust, racially biased treatment and suspensions of her young black son, Seth.

In the Hamden, CT district where Seth attended school, suspension and arrest rates, especially of students of color are very high. At the middle school level, 37.3% percent of black students were suspended last year, compared to 20.1% Latinx students and 8% of white students. Additionally, 29% of students with disabilities were suspended, often for behaviors directly related to their learning disabilities, an act which is against the law. Of additional concern is the use of police in schools to “de-escalate” behaviors, which has resulted in 52% of black students being arrested compared to 19.4% of white students. Hamden is not unique in these trends, but it is on the higher end of districts in CT.

"I was gonna set my son up and put him in a private school and skirt the whole school to prison pipeline...I was gonna put him ahead, so he could have some early successes and early wins as a young black boy in his educational journey...and what it has become is one of the most difficult times of our lives that we are still facing. There has not been a year since pre K where I haven’t gotten calls from school."  

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Growing up, Kia loved school, it was her happy place. At age 3, she enrolled Seth in a private school hoping to "skirt the whole school to prison pipeline" endemic in some of her family and in society. She wanted to give Seth some "early successes" and "early wins" and set him on the right course for a good life. So, when she started getting calls from pre school about her son's behavior it was difficult, and not at all what she expected her parenting challenges would be. Especially when those calls turned into suspensions and then in 3rd grade, in public school, to police being called  and then at the age of ten, in 5th grade, to handcuffing and restraining him. 

"Maybe my kid does have some challenges and does need some support...getting people to look at it as something that needed support and learning rather than something that just needed to be managed, remains very difficult to this day…”

Throughout elementary school most teachers and administrators weren't able to reconcile Seth's high intelligence with the emotional and behavioral supports he needed. Kia recalled that teachers would say "'Seth is so smart, we don’t understand why he behaves this way', as if the complexity of misbehavior and intelligence can’t live in the same person...Every child misbehaves, that’s just the nature of children, adults misbehave. To somehow think it’s not gonna happen is silly...He’s never aggressed on anyone or brought a weapon to’s just something that [the teachers] don’t know how to help him with. He can’t sit still? Ok, don’t punish him for that. He talks out of turn? OK how do we use that for a strength of his to enable his learning? He’s an emotional kid, his feelings get hurt? OK, well, let’s teach him how to manage his emotions. There is a way to help him be who he is without making who he is bad. But the experience has been 'it’s bad', 'it’s punishable', 'it’s unmanageable', and, 'fix your kid'".

The various schools Seth has attended all place the blame for Seth's challenges at school on him, or on Kia as his mother. However, those same behaviors don't show up at home, in Sunday school, in after school programs or summer camp. The tendency in the standard school classroom to use control techniques to manage children, rather than being aware of children's differesnt needs and finding supports for them, often escalated Seth's behaviors, rather than helping him.  As Kia explains, there is a constant "power struggle and escalation by adults. 'Just do what I say'...If you don’t comply, there are consequences...which is not therapeutic, or learning or building the skill….".

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Kia will be the first to acknowledge the enormous pressures teachers have on them, and that Seth is only one of 20+ kids in the class. But, after seven years of working with four different schools, acquiescing to a special needs diagnosis, the creation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and still dealing with dozens of suspensions and police restraining her son in school, it is long overdue for the adults in the school to take responsibility for their role in triggering Seth's behaviors and escalating situations. 

"tell me, how many white children you've called the police on? How many white children’s parents you've called in the middle of the day as if they aren’t working and trying to make a living for their families, and how many black parents you call?" 

Almost all of Seth's teachers and administrators, from Pre K through 5th grade have been white women. Often when they described his behavior there was a lot of racially coded language referring to him as  "aggressive" and needing to keep him and other students "safe". Seth is a larger than average boy, and the constant reference to his size and the perceived danger he posed when he had not been aggressive towards others, clearly implied racial bias. 

“I remember sitting in a meeting of all white staff and faculty and I remember saying to them, 'can we acknowledge, that right now in this moment, there are 8 people in this room who are not related to Seth, who came here to talk about this little brown boy and his very brown parent in this room. In the context of a nation where police officers are shooting young black boys for having bb guns, and you called the cops on my then 3rd grader, because he ran out the classroom… he ran out the classroom, ok, he did...There is a dynamic here that does exist and so to ignore it doesn’t serve any of us...let’s name it, and figure out how are we, maybe unintentionally playing into it? You are calling him aggressive and you are calling him unsafe, and you’re calling him big for his age, do you do the same thing for white children? Maybe you don’t even notice it before...tell me how many white children you’ve called the police on? How many white children’s parents you’ve called in the middle of the day as if they aren’t working and trying to make a living for their families, and how many black parents you call?...There’s no answer for these things."

At first Kia handled all of these challenges "very clumsily", but over time she learned to ask important questions and try and hold the adults accountable not only to their words but to the implementation of the agreed upon plan. However being one parent, and a black woman addressing a room full of white school staff is difficult. Kia often feels like she has to read her resume to prove that what she is saying is legitimate. She over emphasizes her understanding of mental health and school systems to feel like she is really being listened to, because if she doesn't she feels like she is dismissed. 

"Administrators not only don’t acknowledge the power they have, they try and downplay it and say it’s not there...which is ridiculous."

Kia jokes that her son is not like Neo from the Matrix, he's not "the only one", and the data backs her up on this. Many of the suspensions Seth has received are for a behaviors that are documented as needing supports in his IEP. While it is illegal for schools to punish children for a behavior resulting from an assessed need, it happens regularly, and the data proves it. Racial bias in schools is extremely prevalent and the data clearly demonstrates that as well. We live in a society that teaches racism everywhere, explicitly and implicitly, and it will continue to manifest in our schools as well unless we acknowledge it and work to change it. 

The importance of hearing this story in all it's detail, is to understand the complexity, to gain compassion and to learn about what can be done differently.  We need to address learning needs, racial bias, and we need to transform school culture. Seth's last school said they could not guarantee that the police would not be called on him again, even for a non-violent behavior like running out of the classroom in frustration. So Kia moved Seth to a school in another town, and Hamden is paying for it. All of the teachers in his new school are trained in working with students with special needs, so the emotional learning is well integrated into the classroom. Seth is thriving. It may be easy for those who don't know Seth to write him off as a difficult kid, or to think that he is the odd kid out that needs extreme amounts of help, but that is not that case. In public schools across our region, students whose learning styles or emotional needs don't fit into the standard classroom environment are often suspended multiple times a year, if not much more. They are the ones punished and blamed.

Seth is blessed to have a mother with exceptional skills to advocate for him, and a pure love of his joyous, fun loving, self. "Life is gonna be amazing for him, this is just a bump in the hear him daydream about what his life is going to be like, it just keeps me going, it’s just so amazing, he’s a kid that deserves better and so I keep doing it, because I know he deserves better."

Listen to the full interview at the top of this post or by podcast.

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Many thanks to Kia Levey Burden for sharing her story so fully and publicly. This helps to bring light to the many broader issues of racial bias in schools and to lift the shame and isolation many people with similar stories feel. Thanks as well to The Graustein Memorial Fund for their support, and of course, WNHH Community Radio and the New Haven Independent for airing The Table Underground and uplifting local news and stories.

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