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Acclaimed professor speaks against criminalization in the classroom

Hundreds of community members from Mills College and the greater Oakland area gathered in the Lokey Graduate School of Business to discuss discipline and discrimination in education.

Acclaimed author and professor of education at UCLA, Tyrone C. Howard lectured on Tuesday, Apr. 28 for “Decriminalizing School Discipline: How We Can Transform Our Schools to Truly Make Black Lives Matter.” Howard is the faculty director of UCLA’s Center X, which, according to their website, seeks to dramatically change “schooling for the underserved students of Los Angeles.”

Howard spoke primarily about the discrimination of students of color in schools. He contextualized this discrimination within the history of race relations in the United States. While it can be uncomfortable to discuss these issues head-on, Howard said, it is important to expose the permeation of racism within schools and society today.

Howard explained that black and brown students are often labeled and treated differently than other students. One teacher Howard encountered used the term “thugs” to describe children of color in her classroom; another teacher used “hooligans” and even “criminals.” This language mirrors the terminology that mass media has used to describe protestors in Baltimore, Howard noted.

“When you begin to dehumanize any population, you begin to make them less than human by labeling them as something that is problematic,” Howard said. 

In schools currently, severe disciplinary action has become a common response to increasingly minor offenses, Howard said. Howard described watching a student get suspended for three days for wearing flip flops. 

According to Howard, approximately 3.5 million students are expelled annually from U.S. schools. Additionally, 6.1 million suspensions occur each year (averaging at 2-3 days per suspension). Combining this data, Howard concluded that there are 19,000,000 days of instruction lost annually to disciplinary isolation. Howard also noted that these suspension and expulsion rates disproportionately affect students of color. 

Rather than disciplinary action that isolates, victimizes and marginalizes students, Howard proposed what he calls restorative justice.

“Restorative justice practices aim to replace a punitive approach to discipline with a more constructive, collaborative, and humane approach that embraces all members of the community, including those who have violated the rules,” Howard said.

Howard envisions what he calls a “Critical and Caring Approach,” which values the role of caregivers and community based organizations in education. Part of Howard’s “Critical and Caring Approach” is the prioritization of social and emotional development ahead of academics. Howard stressed the importance of teachers who are empathetic and passionate about education. Howard believes that those who are not deeply dedicated and invested in education should be encouraged to pursue other career options.

Sophomore Soph Woodruff who wants to teach high school math, said they liked Howard’s emphasis on taking educational professions seriously.

“I really appreciated that he spoke to the fact that there are a bunch of aspiring educators in the crowd and that he spoke to the fact that not everyone is cut out to be a teacher,” Woodruff said. “I think that’s a really important approach to take because he contended with the assumed view that those who can’t do teach.”

Patty Perez, a sociology major and urban education minor, appreciated the lecture and was interested in Howard’s discussion of student resiliency, particularly honoring the experiences that students have outside of school.

“Students are really different, and [it is important] to celebrate that resilience. They’re going through so much in their home life that you don’t even understand…they’re really strong students,” Perez said.

Howard encouraged audience members to follow him on Twitter at @tyronechoward. For more information about Howard, visit his page on the UCLA website.