What institutionalized racism looks like inside our system of education

I have no idea how the algorithm on Facebook works (I’m afraid to want to know), but somehow I don’t ever have to sort through insane, racist posts from white people screaming about how they aren’t racist. Those people seem to find me and comment on my own posts, however, and I’m always worried that the people of color whom I admire deeply are going to see the ugly ignorance being spewed many times from people stuck in my Southern hometown and wonder, what the hell, Heather?

I often forget that out of my sprawling extended family and the friends from my Southern past I’m in the tiny percentage of us who don’t buy into white superiority. That doesn’t make me special. In fact, that’s just another facet of my privilege, that I can forget that all these people in my life think that there isn’t such a thing as institutionalized racism. I get to forget about my whiteness.

(The cohost of my podcast Manic Rambling Spiral brings this up in the latest episode called “Start Seeing Color” wherein we discuss the importance of talking to our kids about race. Yes. Two white people talking about race, and we will be the first to admit that we probably fumble our way through the entire thing, but if there’s one takeaway: it’s white people’s responsibility to deal with other white people’s white fragility.)

Perhaps the Facebook algorithm notices that I like almost everything posted by Kelly Wickham and thinks to itself, Heather wants no part of that white nonsense over there. And if that’s the case, fuck yeah, Facebook!

(Hi, Roxanna!)

Kelly and I were talking? texting? exchanging messages on Voxer? Doesn’t matter, I told her I just wanted to hand over whatever platform I have so that, if at all possible, she could show to an audience who might not follow her as closely as I do what it looks like from the inside of it all. It was an offhanded thought, but she asked if I’d like her to write something for my website.

What I love most about what follows here is what I love most about Kelly: her generosity. Whenever I go into any potentially uncomfortable conversation, I ask myself, “How can I be as gracious about this as Kelly was with me?” Kelly offers a young boy his adolescence, his humanity, something he’d been denied by an institution charged with his care and well-being. She said that part was easy, so easy that it pisses her off. As it should. And we should all be pissed off with her.


In May of this last school year, I had a last straw moment. As a guidance dean and a part of an administrative team, this was truly nothing new, but this one was simply heartbreaking on a global scale as an example of what happens to Black children in schools.

Here’s a statistic I used this week to illustrate a similar point: the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights reported that in the 2012-13 school year the Chicago Public School system issued 32 suspensions for every 100 Black students. That number drops to 5 of every 100 white students. This data isn’t difficult to find. But this is what they don’t want you to know.

Check out The Hidden Cost of Suspension and find your state and district.

Within a two week time span we dealt with the discipline of two 8th grade boys: one white, and one Black. The disparity in how the school’s administrative team responded to their consequences was astounding in his scope and sheer, blatant racism. I’ve seen this play out numerous times both as a classroom teacher and an administrator. It’s the kind of thing that is kept quiet and we don’t talk about it. If you bring up race, you’re silenced, ignored, or punished. Whiteness protects itself within the system. How we responded to each boy is a stunning example of that.

The white student, Scott*, is an 8th grade student who has progressively gotten more failing grades since he came to us in 6th grade. He is likable and kind but uses his humor to get out of trouble. Scott has an older brother who had been in trouble with the law and when the brother was taken to jail for it, Scott took up the family business. His mother was aware of his behavior and didn’t balk since that meant extra income for the family. Scott brought marijuana to school and put it in another friend’s locker. He was subsequently suspended for this as dictated by our discipline policy. Scott was also on our Problem Solving Team, referred to us at the end of his 6th grade year. When we realized he required testing for special education, we asked that his mother get him glasses. The rules for special education dictate that vision and hearing must be corrected prior to testing.

His mother never gave consent, so he remained on our team as a student in need of interventions. He spent time with the school social worker and me, as his guidance dean, to attend homework help after school and do a grade check-in periodically. These are the supports he got as a natural response.

The Black student, Lashawn*, is also an 8th grader whose grades are better but he’s truly not living up to his potential as a student. He played on the basketball team and each year during the season his grades would improve. Lashawn never missed a day of school. I knew this because each morning my post for supervision duty was next to his locker and I teased him about moving so slowly.

“Lashawn, if you go any slower you’ll be going backwards,” and “I’ll bet I can walk backwards in my heels and still beat you to class,” I would tell him.

One day, Lashawn was nowhere to be found. I noted it, but thought perhaps he’d been in the office or dealing with something else. Around 9:30 his mother came in to say she was out of town and a friend texted her that they’d seen Lashawn at McDonald’s that morning and his excuse was that he missed the bus. However, he stopped taking his mother’s phone calls. We asked the SRO in the building to help us and he gladly agreed, but we were careful not to list him as a runaway since the juvenile system could get involved. His mother tried finding him by tracing his phone with an app and we got in my car so I could drive her around the neighborhood to find him.

His friends had told us that he planned to skip and hang out with a girl so that he could have sex with her. There was another older person he might be with and that man had access to drugs. All of this was a shock to Lashawn’s mother who hadn’t seen any signs of this disobedient behavior before. He was found after midnight about 50 miles away and stayed home the next day to sleep and, ostensibly, get lectured by his parents for this.

By the time he returned to school, I was out of the building at a meeting so I didn’t get to connect with him. I did the following day but before I had a chance to see him, our administrative team had a meeting. I learned that the day before, the principal had our SRO sit down and talk with Lashawn, telling him what his life could lead to if he kept up this dangerous behavior. She planned on having another police officer, a younger Black man, come in to speak with Lashawn as well.

That’s two cops called in to deal with a student.

That is not our protocol and it infuriated me.

“I don’t know if you know this, but calling the cops on Black children isn’t going so well for them right now. Sometimes they’re killed,” I said in the meeting. My boss didn’t back down. She said this was the best course of action and she had permission from Lashawn’s mother to do so. Pressing on, I said that this was a racist response to something that was typical adolescent behavior and that I vehemently disagreed with it.

“You have a KNOWN drug dealer in the building and you didn’t contact police for him.” She didn’t change her mind and we went on with the rest of the meeting. I zoned out for the remainder of it, thinking again about how violent and emotionally damaging it is to discount my lived experience as a Black woman when I try to give input on how we respond to students. What if Lashawn balks at the police presence and becomes agitated? What if he ends up in handcuffs and taken to the juvenile detention center because this unnecessary situation escalates?

Afterward, I contacted Lashawn’s mother myself, telling her that if she gave permission for the police to speak with her son she should take it back.

“That is NOT the proper response that a school should put in place for that behavior,” I told her. She assumed that the principal had her best interest at heart and, since she’s a parent and not the leader of a school, she thought that she had to agree with it. When she listened to me for a bit she agreed that she had made a mistake in allowing it and approved of the plan I had instead.

In looking at the behavior of an adolescent 13 year old boy, we should have properly supported him. I knew Lashawn very well and had a good relationship with him. He didn’t like letting me down and I was a trusted adult for him. His mother asked that I try to find out what else was going on in his life as he’d shut down to her lately. When he got to my office I decided to put it all on the table and be blunt. My aim was to weed through all the bullshit quickly so we could get to the heart.

“Lashawn, let’s shorthand this, okay? Don’t make me waste 30 minutes on getting you to tell me the truth about skipping. Why don’t we start from the place where I know you wanted to have sex with that girl and I know you might have wanted to get high. Can we do that?” He wasn’t sure how to take me so I quickly spoke again. “I’m not tricking you. This isn’t to catch you. What you did was normal behavior for an adolescent. You are growing up and this is a natural part of that. I swear, I am not judging you here.”

When he realized that I wasn’t, he nodded his head and said, “Okay.”

Then, I dove right into the meat of the real discussion I wanted to have with him. I asked him if he was hurting or scared or anxious or felt depressed in a way that was new. I told him these were also normal and that many teens feel this way. He let me talk about this in a general way for a few minutes and since he needed time to respond I simply asked, “Are you hurting? Is there something inside that doesn’t feel right?”

He took several seconds before answering me.


I think I let out the biggest sigh when he did that. It wasn’t intentional, it just relieved me that he was being honest.

“Ok. Do you want me to get you some help?”

At this point, his eyes were welling up and he nodded and said, “Yes, please.”

My next thoughts were to be furious. To be outraged at the initial response to call the police on a child who had engaged in normal, adolescent behavior. What I did with him took mere moments and it was easy. I already had a relationship with him so he trusted me and I simply asked if he needed to get more support. When I called his mother I gave her the number to the Youth Service Bureau in town as well as the children’s psychiatric hospital and some therapists that I’d found online for her at her request.

And this broke my right in half: his mother trusted the school. She thought the idea of calling the police for her son was good because it came from the school and our job is to protect them and advocate for them and even allow them to make mistakes. Within a 10 minute conversation with Lashawn I gave him the space to experience his own adolescence. The original plan denied him that and assumed that the police were in charge of him while he was in our care.

How much care did we afford him at first?

This work isn’t easy, but it shouldn’t have been that difficult. When we suggest that Black Lives Matter, this is what we’re talking about. We mean that in these two cases we shouldn’t have given the white student all manner of support while calling the police into a public school to deal with the Black student. Empathic support of students looks different and it shouldn’t. There’s no reason that a school should contact police to handle student behavior that broke no laws (he didn’t have drugs, he just skipped school) but after Lashawn walked out of my office I had my moment.

I had that lightbulb go off over my head and not because this was the first time I’d seen such inequity in handling students. This is repeated ad nauseam within the system and, if we’re honest, we know that it’s supposed to work this way.

Whiteness protects itself and comes out in these nefarious ways in multiple systems in the United States. It rips my heart out to know that Lashawn’s mother trusted the system that much. She trusted us to have his best interest at heart and she trusted us to know the care he required. Calling the police for him was wrong, it was a mistake, and it was racist. I know why she trusted us. Parents of Black students are often told that their children require more discipline and that schools need to step in to help them. It’s the way the system works and it disempowers parents raising Black children by taking control of parenting them en loco parentis.

And it’s wrong. Dead ass wrong.

This lightbulb moment was different. It’s because as I watch the world crumbling I had had enough of it and the desire to expose this part of systemic racism is greater than my desire to protect the system that will do so without my help. When I chant Black Lives Matter and do so for the unarmed Black men and women who continue to be wounded and killed, I do it thinking of what’s happening out in communities. Yet, here’s the connection for schools: they have to matter there, too. We, as an educational community, are culpable for the kind of treatment and support we give students. This is our burden and our fault when we do it poorly.

I’m not giving us a pass on it and keeping quiet about it anymore.


*names have been changed with respect to privacy