The day my student was expelled
Harsh punishment and “no excuses” policies have long-term negative consequences for our students, and disproportionately affect minorities
There are few moments I regret so profoundly as one of the decisions I made in my second year of teaching.
In the fall of 2011, I was an optimistic 22-year-old teacher at a public charter school in a low-income neighborhood in New Orleans, Louisiana. I had just finished a challenging but great first year of teaching. Despite becoming slowly aware of some of the systemic problems affecting our low-income communities, I clung to an attitude of fierce idealism towards education reform and poverty mitigation. As simplistic as it sounds, at the time I genuinely believed that good teaching and instilling a strong work ethic in students were the silver bullets to many of the problems that perpetuated the cycle of poverty.
This story is about one of my former students, who I’ll call Marcus for the sake of his privacy. Marcus was a quiet, hard-working, 15-year-old black student in my Geometry class. One September morning, Marcus walked into my classroom reeking of marijuana. Doing what I was required to do, I notified the school behavior dean, essentially passing off the problem to someone of higher authority.
In retrospect, my referral changed the course of Marcus’ life for the next year —and perhaps the distant future — for the worse.
Our school officials searched him. It turned out that Marcus was in possession of a “substantial amount” of marijuana (a violation of state law) which meant that the school was required to call the New Orleans Police Department. Marcus was also expelled and had to re-enroll in an alternative school which specifically accepts students kicked out of traditional public school environments.
A month later, I received a court summons to testify at a trial for Marcus’ marijuana possession. Before that date, I met with a representative from a non-profit student advocacy group working on Marcus’ case. The representative was patient and diligent. She painstakingly sought out all details from the case, and expressed a desire for Marcus to be given a lenient sentence.
On the court date, I went to the New Orleans Criminal District Court, checked in, and took a seat in a crowded waiting room. I couldn’t help noticing the racial disparity in that room. Most defendants were black, and many were young — a symptom of a larger systemic problem that I wouldn’t come to understand until later.
About a half hour before our trial, I was pulled out of the waiting room by the prosecutor on the case who said that he wanted to “prepare me” for the trial. He was a loud, tall white man with a constant smile plastered across his face; his gregarious demeanor was a stark contrast to how tense and nervous I was. We sat down in a side room, and he began to tell me a series of things quite casually: that I shouldn’t be nervous; that this is a pretty simple case; that he “sees cases of young troublemakers” like Marcus all the time; that he’ll ask me specific questions about the incident; that I should make sure to describe the weed smell; that Marcus will then be sentenced because that’s how these cases go. It was troubling to hear how easy it was for him to make characterizations about my student, who he had not even met. To this day, I’m not sure if this type of discussion is a routine thing or not.
Soon after, the trial started and I was called to the witness stand. I was questioned about Marcus’ performance in class. In what was probably an effort at redemption, I spoke lavishly about his brilliance, how helpful he was in class, and his kind demeanor. We then walked through the details of the case, and I was dismissed from the courtroom. The whole thing lasted less than 10 minutes.
Marcus, thankfully, didn’t get punished beyond a small fine in criminal court. Five months later, our school officials met with Marcus (who said he was not learning anything at the alternative school) and his family, and allowed him to re-enroll in our school. Though holistically this is one of the best outcomes we could’ve asked for, it no doubt set Marcus back academically, and in the subsequent semester, when Marcus returned to my classroom as a Geometry student, he struggled with the material and began to showcase behavior problems, frequently attending detention.
I was a novice teacher who prided myself in my classroom management and my ability to form meaningful relationships with my students, yet escalating this situation was something I later came to deeply regret. I’ve reflected on this timeline of events many, many times over the past 5 years, and a couple things stand out to me.
First, can you imagine how harrowing this experience must have been for Marcus? In the span of just one year, a young 15-year-old with no prior behavioral problems is thrown into the court system, removed from his school environment, branded as a “troublemaker,” falls behind academically, and now has a record. And he’s arguably one of the lucky ones — his sentence could have been much worse.
I want to say this again: he was 15. Do you remember how much stupid shit you did at 15? Teenagers make mistakes. They’re practically hard-wired for it. To go through the agony of being tried in a court of law seems excessive.
Second, I can say that this experience changed me as a person too — I woke up to the existence of intentionally-created systems working against kids like Marcus, and the vast inequities plaguing communities like the one that he comes from. This case alone offers a glimpse into some of the many injustices prevalent today:
- Marcus was put in our justice system simply for possession of weed. This marks a trend started by the “War on Drugs” decades ago that continues today, wherein we impose harsh punishments and sentences for drug possession. Many authors of those legislative actions have privately or publicly conceded that these laws were designed to disproportionately target minorities and residents of low-income communities.
- Note the attitude of the community advocate vs the prosecutor— in the latter, we see an assumption of guilt, and an insistence that “troublemakers” must be punished. It’s likely that this attitude may have been racially motivated. Black students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white peers (despite no evidence that they engage in misconduct more often), and this is correlated to implicit biases and assumption of guilt.
- There’s a trend among schools that serve low-income communities to enforce harsh discipline. This mentality is often coupled with the “no excuses” models that are prevalent among charter schools. Unfortunately, this often results in a culture of pure obedience, something that upper-class (and by corollary, mostly white) students don’t have to endure. This means severe consequences for mistakes that could arguably be corrected through other mechanisms. What would have happened if Marcus were in a private school? Or in a state or school system that didn’t believe in such harsh punishment?
- Punitive disciplinary ideologies in schools contribute to a pervasive problem known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Students like Marcus who are expelled from their schools fall behind academically and are at a higher risk of exhibiting antisocial behavior or getting involved in criminal activity in the future.
Third, I mentioned that I have regretted reporting the student to my school officials. One could argue that I did what I was required to do in that situation (indeed, the faculty was explicitly instructed to report any student possessing weed). Yes, I technically did the right thing according to our school policies.
But an ethical dilemma arises from this situation. It is also a teacher’s responsibility to cultivate happy, successful students.
Knowing what I know now — that the consequences of reporting the action would be so dire, how should my duty to report my student pair up against my obligation to ensure my student’s success?
There’s a lot of attention being drawn to restorative justice practices, an alternative to the “no excuses” model that abandons the idea of immediate punishment and instead focuses on how the student can be coached to positive behavior. Could I have positively redirected my student into understanding potential consequences for his action? Could I have dug deeper into the root of Marcus’ drug possession and helped him identify better choices? Could I have asked him to flush the marijuana down a toilet?
I am not in touch with Marcus, and I have no idea where he is now. I’m sure it’s hard to measure how this incident impacted the next 5 years of his life, but I sincerely hope that he was able to move on from this experience and not let it define him.
I hope that we can continue to re-think the attitudes we hold around the need for swift justice and harsh consequences, and instead focus more on allowing second chances for our students, creating teaching moments instead of reflexively doling out punishments, and hopefully even rolling back some of the regressive local, state, and federal policies that have devastating long-term consequences on our nation’s children and that disproportionately affect our students of color.
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