School violence and student interpersonal conflict are on the minds of the Black community, in light of the recent deaths of at least two children following fights on school grounds. Such incidents place into focus the role of school suspensions and other forms of discipline, and whether these forms of punishment actually act as an effective deterrent to fighting in an educational environment.
A recent study suggests that although school discipline was supposed to be a deterrent to school violence, these measures have the opposite effect and exacerbate school violence. Charles Bell, assistant professor of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University, authored the study, which looks at primarily Black high schools and builds from previous research showing that Black students are suspended and expelled three times for frequently than white students in K-12 public schools, and Black students are disproportionately expelled and suspended based on subjective offenses such as insubordination and disrespect.
Bell chose to examine students’ and parents’ perceptions of out-of-school suspensions in Black high schools, and the ways in which those perceptions are tied to students’ social status. At issue is the “Code of the Street,” the norms which dictate the use of violence in the Black community, and in turn influence the “code of the school.” Meanwhile, Bell says the zero-tolerance policies that provide the basis for school discipline originate from the mandatory minimum sentencing used to regulate drug trafficking and violence in the urban communities.
This qualitative study — the result of 60 interviews with Black students and the parents of children who were suspended from high schools in Detroit and Southfield in southeastern Michigan — found that Black students use suspensions as part of a strategy to gain respect from their peers and a reputation for toughness. “Additionally, my findings suggest parents are aware of the code and they provide guidance on navigating it, such as specifying when it is appropriate to engage in physical altercations,” Bell said in his report. Parents encourage their children to defend themselves lest they become a target for fights and bullying, and place little faith in schools to protect their students, he argues. “The findings in this study stand to make an important contribution to the literature as they suggest out-of-school suspensions exacerbate violence and create dangerous environments within PBHSs (Primarily Black High Schools).”
Bell told Atlanta Black Star that the social norms found within the street code exacerbate school fights. “The street code establishes violence as the most important tactic for gaining respect and it necessitates that any dispute is settled by utilizing a greater level of violence than the initial offense,” he said. “As the street code pervades educational institutions, students feel compelled to respond to a verbal dispute with physical violence and to physical violence with gun violence.”
Further, professor Bell learned that the increase in popularity and respect that students enjoy from their peers following their suspension also contributes to an increase in school fighting. “Many of the students I interviewed appeared to enjoy the favorable attention they received after returning to school post-suspension. This newfound popularity and respect led students to continuously engage in physical altercations to maintain their social status,” Bell noted. “Finally, a profound distrust of school officials and school safety measures led students to take matters into their own hands when dealing with verbal and/or physical violence.”
Bell notes that research on student and parent perceptions of school discipline policies is limited, and researchers should explore how students perceive violence, safety and punishment. An issue that he emphasized was the relationship between students not feeling safe and not placing trust in school security and punishment measures. Compared to their white counterparts, Black students did not believe school rules and the enforcement of those rules are fair, according to past research. “The findings showed students did not feel safe in school due to an inequitable system of discipline and inoperable security measures that created a dangerous educational environment,” he noted.
Student attitudes towards schools with high-security measures such as security guards, police, metal detectors, locker searches and the like depend on student perceptions of the environment. Those students who thought their school was safe viewed heightened security measures as unnecessary, while students who believed the school was unsafe “were more likely to report security measures created an additional burden for students to navigate,” Bell wrote.
Recent tragic school violence incidents such as the death of Kashala Francis are directly related to Bell’s findings, the author noted. On April 17, 13-year-old Kashala Francis of Attucks Middle School in Houston slipped into a coma and died from a brain tumor after she was attacked by two classmates as she walked home from school. The girls reportedly laughed as they punched and kicked Francis in the head. Doctors had discovered a tumor and fluid buildup in Francis’ brain, with the fight possibly exacerbating the tumor.
On March 27, RaNiya Wright, 10, a fifth-grader at Forest Hills Elementary School in the Lowcountry town of Walterboro, South Carolina collapsed and died following an altercation with another students two days earlier. Wright, who showed no physical signs of injury and had seen a doctor 13 days before the fight with complaints of headaches, experienced headaches following the fight. According to officials, the girl died from natural causes, a rupturing of a blood vessel associated with a condition she was born with known as arteriovenous malformation — a tangling of blood vessels in the brain.
In a similar 2016 case of a student death associated with school violence, Amy Joyner-Francis, 16, died of sudden cardiac failure after classmates beat her in a bathroom in Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, Delaware. Joyner-Francis had a pre-existing heart condition that was exacerbated by the assault, which included hits to the head and torso. Two of Joyner-Francis’ classmates were found delinquent — the equivalent of a guilty verdict in family court — of conspiracy in her death, while the homicide conviction for one of the teens was overturned.
These cases and others highlight the issue of violence in our schools, and the widespread and under-reported problem of bullying among Black youth — both as victims and aggressors. Bell believes there is a need for intervention in the schools, and is concerned that racial disparities in expulsions and suspensions only serve to remove students of color from schools and into prison.
The results of this study pose a dilemma, seemingly a contradiction, in that while society views typical school discipline and safety measures as necessary to shield children from harm, the results of this study suggest that these school policies and practices betray their express purpose where predominantly Black high schools are concerned. Addressing the contradiction the code of the school creates for traditional school security and discipline, the author of the study recommends that school stakeholders create an inclusive and democratic educational environment where students believe they are involved in shaping school policies. Bell also recommends clear and fair rules and where schools reward positive behavior and provide instruction on conflict resolution. He also notes that future research should explore how prevalent the code of the school is to determine if it is consistent throughout predominantly Black high schools.
“School officials can reduce violence in the academic setting by involving students in the process of creating school rules, building trust between students and school officials, and establishing and properly funding partnerships with community violence organizations,” Bell said, offering that Black and Latino students consistently feel unsafe in school due to unworkable security measures and unequal disciplinary systems that create a dangerous learning environment. “Research shows many conflicts between students begin in the neighborhood setting and carry over into schools. Therefore, a partnership with a community violence organization would allow school officials to intervene before the conflict escalates into physical and/or gun violence.”
The professor also suggests researchers and policymakers get to the root cause of behavior problems rather than rely on school removal as the primary means to combat violence in a public school setting. Researchers must also study “how students perceive violence, safety, and punishment in the school and street settings,” the report noted. Bell points to factors such as the ways in which violent altercations arise in school, violent encounters in the neighborhood that spill into the classroom, how fights over the opposite sex, rumors and violations of personal space turn violent, and how schools stigmatize students with labels such as “prison bound” and “deviant” to reinforce social class.
According to Bell, in light of the racial disparities in school punishment, some states such as Illinois, Maryland and Michigan have replaced zero tolerance policies with restorative justice programs that focus on in-school meetings and peaceful solutions to disagreements rather than more punitive measures. Given the harmful and even deadly consequences that arise from students settling their differences through force, the time for change is now.