True Justice for Borderlands Youth: Harsh Treatment, Subtractive Discipline
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
When I think of punishment in schools, the first image that comes to my mind is the one of a large angry adult leaning over and pointing at a child half their size, shouting something like: “I am going to teach you a lesson!” A lesson the child is not able to learn for their totally stressed out amygdala has detected a threat and is only trying to figure out how to self-defend and protect. The child is feeling fearful, voiceless, disempowered, undignified, totally alone. Still today it happens most of all to the traditionally marginalized. Because of their lower advantage, they are often treated as if deserving of less value and dignity, a subtractive form of discipline.
Why is it that too often the first reaction to a child’s mistake – children and youth are supposed to make mistakes to learn - and with the supposed excuse of helping them grow up, is to become harsh and hostile? Why is it that those in charge of the welfare of children often push them from their natural state of self-confidence, trust and community involvement into hypervigilance, lack of trust of systems meant to teach, value and protect them, and marginality? Instead of on punitive and subtractive practices, why not cultivate inclusion, support, validation, the capacity to speak up and self-advocate, identity exploration, agency, and community involvement?
During my 30 plus-year career in education I have closely worked with traditionally marginalized youth. These youth lack resources and live borderlands existences. They live between racial, ethnic, linguistic, national and cultural borders. Some of these youth have behavioral, attendance, emotional, social, and/or academic issues. Punishment is something they are too familiar with.
When I became dean of students, the matrix that was handed down to me was made of incremental punishments that escalated in exclusion, hostility and disempowerment. This generic matrix failed to validate the uniqueness, funds of knowledge, heroic narratives, and capacity for greatness of youth who were already at the margins of the curriculum and extra-curricular activities. As I started to gather data, what became clear to me was that the youth who were most targeted by these practices – even if subtly by systems who self-advocated as proactively fair – where the ones lacking in resources and living borderlands experiences in mostly poor and dangerous neighborhoods.
I have often seen a battle of wills between a school administrator and a defiant youth who would rather be punished than lose face. I believe that youth do this when they feel they have nothing else to lose. Needless to say, the more resistance, the more punishment. The experience that stands in my mind is the one of a borderlands young man who was placed in full-day in-school-suspension 13 full days and out-of-school for several more before he was diagnosed with emotional disabilities. He was always kind to me. I will never forget how one morning he stood for a while holding the door for me, looking at me and smiling until I made it to the school building from the parking lot. The longest a student has waited for me at the door.
I have witnessed how there is often one school administrator – among several - well known for being the most punitive; not representing the borderlands experiences of those s/he punishes. I have also seen injustice in subtle practices such as repeated punishment, like in the case of students who are punished more than three times in the school year. The data I gathered before I left my school was that it was ninth graders, the brown skinned, the borderlands, youth whose parents did not understand the system and lacked the resources to support, protect and advocate for them in the ways that mainstream parents can. I also saw how in the group of ESOL students, it was mostly the ones who had just recently arrived, in grief, culture-shocked, language deficient, often traumatized, unable to advocate for themselves. Males were punished the most – the feminization of teaching could be partly blamed for that. No White students were placed in full-day in-school suspension for more than three times. In the spectrum of experiences and needs of youth, a White middle class and a borderlands, disadvantaged student, for example, exist at the extremes. There is simply no comparison if we truly mean to support the whole child. Generic, impersonal and punitive matrices do not discipline with dignity those for whom true discipline would make the most difference.
What is often referred to as discipline in schools is the easy way out from establishing preventive, enriching, supportive and – if an infraction has been committed - restorative practices for youth. Resources should be devoted to no longer reproducing the injustices of society; creating a sanctuary for children who will no longer be treated/disciplined as “Other people’s children”. It perhaps often happens without ill intentions or because of our unwillingness to break away from the prisons we choose to live inside: barriers of ignorance, laziness, comfort zone, self-righteousness, age, gender, language, race, ethnicity, nation, culture.
Discriminatory punishment only stifles the growth of children who should have been destined for greatness. Because of adults’ self-imposed confinements, borderlands children are already at a disadvantage the moment they - enthusiastically most likely - start school. Soon enough in subtractive “other people’s spaces”, “other people’s children” become academically disengaged.