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Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

We Need to Talk About Racial Bias in School Discipline

After refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance, and allegedly telling his teacher “the flag is racist and the national anthem is offensive to black people,” an 11-year-old male student of Lawton Chiles Middle Academy in Lakeland, Fla. was arrested. Charged with disrupting a school function, as well as resisting arrest without violence, the student was also given a three-day suspension.

The incident began when Ana Alvarez, a substitute teacher, demanded that the student stand for the daily pledge of allegiance. After verbal disagreements, school administration was eventually called upon, culminating in the sixth-grader’s eventual arrest and suspension.

Polk County Public Schools spokesman Kyle Kennedy later addressed the event, and made clear that the student had not been arrested or otherwise reprimanded for his stance, or lack thereof, on the Pledge of Allegiance, as students are not required to participate. Rather, the student was being disciplined because of the school disruption he caused. Although Kennedy would not go into further detail about the student’s punishment, he did make a point of saying that Alvarez would no longer be working as a substitute teacher in the county: “Our HR department will contact Kelly Services, which provides our substitutes, to further refine how our substitutes are trained.”

Dhakira Talbot, the student’s mother, was understandably very upset at the situation, noting that her son does not have a history of behavioral issues. “I feel like this should’ve been handled differently,” she said. “If any disciplinary action should’ve been taken, it should’ve been with the school. He shouldn’t have been arrested.”

Many others agree, arguing that the situation was unreasonably escalated, and that the school’s response was related to the fact that the student was Black. While it’s true that the student may well have caused a disturbance, and the school would have then been justified to take punitive measures, the act of involving law enforcement is disturbing and has grim implications.

This instance is one of many that gives evidence of the growing fears about school and municipal policies that have become increasingly harsh over the past few decades. These policies, which are a part of what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, have created a racially unbalanced environment of severe school punishments that are often offenders' first encounter with the criminal justice system. Unfortunately, federal studies have revealed that these policies, while perhaps enacted in good faith, disproportionately target Black students compared to their white counterparts.

This case, along with many like it that will likely never make national headlines, points to a desperate shortcoming of the nation’s education system and its racial bias when it comes to discipline. If a student disrupts his or her class, the correct solution is certainly not to outsource discipline from law enforcement. The point of educating young people is to provide them with the tools to build a brighter future, not to propel them down a slippery downhill slope, into the hands of a racist criminal justice system.

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