Final Policy Project: Bars for Bars

José Yobani López

EDST 245: Public Schools and Public Policy

Professor Mira Debs

May 3rd, 2017

Final Policy Project: Bars for Bars

As the debate around discipline in schools continues, it becomes clearer that traditional punishment-based methods of dealing with student misbehavior are more hurtful than helpful for “bad students” as they often deprive them of educational opportunity. It is also becoming clearer that such discipline disproportionately affects urban populations, specifically low-income students and students of color. To combat this problem, this policy project deviates from the traditional rhetoric of statistics and instead looks into the psychological and emotional nuanced effects of disproportionate discipline, arguing for a complete reformation of how it approaches these students and outlined by three courses of action:

  1. Replace punishment-based discipline with mentorship
  2. Use student culture to frame learning
  3. Implement a more considerate and collaborative school environment

The hopes of this proposal is to trade the jail bars that students might find themselves behind as a result of this system for the rap “bars,” for example, that allow students to celebrate what they can contribute to the classroom and to learn through methods to which they might be more receptive. Two examples of previous efforts are presented, the Homies Empowerment Program and the Oakland Ebonics Resolution, as potential models for how such programs might look like.


The role of discipline in ensuring order in the classroom has traditionally gone unquestioned in public schools. Teachers and principals who deal with “difficult” classes are often tempted to rely on an authoritative attitude to ensure students learn, and more often than not some type of disciplinary action takes place where misbehavior occurs. Such enforcement typically comes from the desire to ensure safety and order in schools rather than to instill a strict culture or to criminalize students.

However, the rhetoric of safety when discussing discipline has successfully created a divide in the student population—those who pose a threat to the safety of schools and those who are victim to this threat—that has provided the framework of how we address the issue of school discipline, and with it a structure for inherent bias to dictate how discipline is instilled. Teachers, parents, principals, and administrators have in turn internalized negative perceptions of students from particular backgrounds, consequently leading to the exercising of disproportionate discipline on these students. Such instances have only become more likely with the implementation of strict “zero-tolerance” policies, and today these environments have led to the “school-to-prison pipeline” phenomenon: students of color and of low-socioeconomic status are attending increasingly hostile school environments that arguably prepare them for lives involved with crime and the carceral system (Advancement Project, 2005) (Heitzeg, 2009) (Walk & Losen, 2003). Today, the debate of discipline centers around the question of balancing school safety and equal access to educational opportunity.

Upon looking more closely at the problem of disproportionate discipline, it becomes clearer that the problem isn’t so much excessive misbehavior as it is a lack of support for these “chronically disruptive students.” While some might argue that such labels are nothing more that identifiers when having this discussion, how these students are treated after being disciplined suggests these labels have a deeper influence on how they are perceived. A recent report from the Connecticut State Department of Education suggests that schools are intentionally driving out students by not providing the resources needed to deal effectively with students who experience trauma or who are expelled in order to get them back on track (Rabe Thomas, 2016). The commitment of schools to educate all children is put to question when schools do not place enough resources for the reincorporation of disciplined students—which tend to come from underprivileged backgrounds.

Graph 1. Attendance of students that received an out-of-school suspension or expulsion, divided by age group and type of school. Taking into account that  Black and Latinx students had suspension and expulsion rates triple that of white students and that districts with the highest number of students expelled or suspended are also those with high poverty and low student performance in the state of Connecticut, there is an argument for a lack of support for underprivileged students. Source: Connecticut State Department of Education (Rabe Thomas, 2016).

When discussing her son’s suspensions, Tunette Powell, a reporter for the Huffington Post, recalls her own feelings with negative disciplinary moments and how it affected her: “I remember being told I was bad and believing it. I remember just how long it took me to believe anything else about myself” (2014). This comment draws attention to a significant effect of disproportionate discipline not conveyed by statistics, namely that of the psychological and emotional damage it does to children and furthermore affecting what type of student they perceive themselves to be. Recognizing this opens up the discussion to explore the harm caused not only in the disciplining itself but in the messages conveyed while sending a student to the principal’s office or in preventing such misbehavior, for example.

Although the number of suspensions and expulsions certainly provides information about disproportionate discipline, increasing attention is shifting to these more quotidian moments where students are reminded of their position in the school-student authority hierarchy. In doing so, it becomes clear school misbehavior does not arise of isolated incidents but rather from an accumulation of small instances that remind students that they are somehow deviant. By studying what Lewis and Diamond refer to as “disciplinary moments,” it becomes evident how the smallest incidents of disproportionate discipline, with enough iterations, “communicate to all who is and who is not a full member of the school community” (2015, p. 46). This creates a powerful effect that, coupled with a lack of support to change their attitude, affects a student’s educational goals and sense of self-value that can affect their performance.

Proceeding along this line of thinking, students are perceived less subjects that learn through dictation and example and more as young capable people who react emotionally and psychologically to the messages that are impressed upon them. If the latter is true, then students can participate in the discussion of discipline in collaboration with teachers so long as the messages that are expressed to them do not patronize the student. The immediate fear of doing this, of course, is that students cannot be trusted to deal with their emotions and with the concept of matching appropriate discipline with behavior when it involves them personally—but students are actually not as incapable of recognizing injustice as one might assume. Carla Shedd’s book Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice (2015) debunks these misconceptions through her interviews across public schools in Chicago on perceptions of injustice from students. Through these interviews students reveals a high capability of noticing the nuances of attending either highly segregated schools or racially mixed schools and of crossing physical and class borders and being exposed to the difference in opportunities (p. 58, 62). Among the most relevant findings, however, is that students are able to differentiate when punishment is fair and when it is unwarranted or unjustified (p. 110-111). An unwillingness to collaborate with teachers or authority figures in school, then, is less a result of students being incapable of accepting punishment for their actions but rather of not trusting these authority figures of holding students’ best interests in mind.

Careful consideration of how school climates have changed as a result of enforcing order and safety more strictly reveals that schools does not trust their students. This explains why “strict zero-tolerance policies and a highly visible police presence have not translated into safer learning or less disruptive student behavior” (p. 84). If the school cannot trust its students, how does it expect its students to trust it back? How can it expect their behavior to change at all?


In an attempt to restore the trust broken by disproportionate discipline, three courses of action are proposed: removing punishment-based discipline completely from schools and replacing these efforts with mentorship; turning to student culture to frame learning and, when needed, intervention; and implementing a more considerate and collaborative school environment.


While conducting her interviews in Chicago public schools, Shedd receives insight into a particular scenario that runs contrary to what others students state when asked about the police. Boomer, a Black student at Lincoln Park High, tells of his “connection” with the school police officers and even takes pride in his relationships with them (2016, p. 116). This makes sense when two details are noted: 1) he connects with Black police officers in particular, and 2) “he believes that the officers have a racially vested interest in seeing Black males like him succeed.”

Scenarios like this bring to light an important fact that can often go ignored, especially with misbehaving students: students need adults they can not only look up but can also connect with. While school environment plays a huge role in the educational experience of a student, a student can overcome a lot of this through a solid relationship with at least one adult that can show genuine care for the student and provide the student with advice. In many cases, the more abstract problem of student disengagement is manifested in the relationship with the teacher, the one adult they spend time with most. By training teachers to behave as mentors instead of instructors, students will be more willing to approach teachers and cooperate with them, whether it be to improve their academic performance or to reflect on how the students can change their behavior. (Zehr, 2002)

In a tangential study of a student population, undocumented Latinx students, that suffers criminalization not by their actions but by their “legal” status, mentorship plays a significant role in anticipating drastically different life outcomes. The undocumented status typically leads students to be ill-advised and supported because of the difficulty of succeeding academically, but the presence of intervening and supportive adults play a crucial role in the student developingand successfully striving forambitious academic goals such as attending college (Gonzales, 2015, p. 14, 45, 76). This reveals that the presence of someone that cares for a student can be hugely influential in overcoming a negative perception against the student, despite the real possibility that they might not achieve such goals.

Although all teachers should strive to be more compassionate, the topic of mentorship touches on the advantages teachers bring to the classroom. Indeed, increasing research on teachers of color shows they have an easier time forming relationships with students (Randolf, 2009). Interviews with Black teachers have shown that this is not only “because of perceived cultural and experiential similarities” but also because teachers are able to relate with students as much as the student can look up to them (Griffin & Tackie, 2016). While a restriction of allowing only teachers of color to be a part of the mentorship component of this proposal may not be reasonable, it is important to incorporate them into the discussion of what mentorship looks like and take race and ethnicity into account when addressing teachers.

Student Culture

Proposing what needs to happen to improve student engagement, mentorship, is the first step of the more complicated process of actually enacting it. To tackle the challenge, different methodologies are considered in order to form the theoretical and pedagogical framework of potential mentorship programs.

Culturally relevant pedagogy is becoming increasingly relevant as a method of incorporating the student’s background into the classroom. Originally framed as a response to assimilative education (Brayboy & Castagno, 2009), it now serves as base of similar pedagogies such as reality pedagogy, which has the goal of “meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf” (Edmin, 2016, p. 27). Through this approach, students are established as the “neoindigenous”the experts of their own environmentsand in the context of the classroom experience, the “student [becomes] the person who shapes how best to teach that content.”

For urban settings, where disproportionate discipline is more evident, hip-hop culture is becoming increasingly attractive as a method of practicing reality pedagogy. Christopher Emdin, who has incorporated hip-hop culture into his lessons in the classroom, provides a definition rap that is quite contrary to how it is popularly perceived: “It is the verbal expression of the realities of social actors in contexts where they are either not allowed to fully participate or cannot be heard because their histories, traditions, and voices are different from those of a dominant group.” (2010, p. 2) If teachers can take advantage of the narrative-intensive nature of rap, they can provide students with an alternative method of expressing themselves or communicating themes and lessons that might feel more foreign through a book or a play. At the same time, student undergo the more important process of structuring their understanding of themselves in the context of their education, inherently affecting their educational goals and outcomes. Marc Lamont Hill, who also incorporates rap into his lessons, explains that through hip-hop curriculum students can explore “new conceptions of self, some highly productive and ennobling and others deeply contradictory and problematic, that shaped how they understood themselves, the classroom, school, and the broader social world” (2009, p. 12).

School Environment

These measures will not go very far if the main problem—the classification of students as either “bad” or “good”—is not addressed and treated directly. To do so requires everyone involved in the student’s education to recognize the harm that occurs in labeling a student as “other,” regardless of how they behave: “We ostracize those who we perceive as outside of established norms, and subjugate those who we see as weaker than us, or a threat to our sameness” (Emdin 2010, p. 1). The benefits of a good mentor should not be limited to students that are perceived to deserve it most.

To combat this tendency requires adultsadministrators and principals in addition to teachersto take into account the larger context of students’ lives. As Noguera explains in What Discipline Is For: Connecting Students to the Benefits of Learning, “When we locate discipline problems exclusively in students and ignore the school and local contexts in which problematic behavior occurs, we overlook the most important factors that give rise to misbehavior.” (p. 136). At the same time, however, adults must also be cognizant of how they interact with these social spaces. Adults must cultivate an awareness of the spaces they occupy and develop “an understanding of how to see, enter into, and draw from these spaces” (Emdin, 2016, p. 27). Only by doing so can adults understand “not just how people engage the world, but how they are also engaged by it” (Brayboy, 2014, p. 399) and frame themselves in the context of the school context–just as each student is doing subconsciously. These steps can mean the difference between an engaged student audience and a classroom environment that cannot allow for even the simplest lesson.

Existing Models

To tackle these three points might prove very challenging, especially when these types of discussions have never been introduced to a particular school community, but schools and districts need not approach the task without any guidance. Indeed, there already exists many programs and efforts that can serve as models of what implementing students’ culture to promote mentorship and create more inclusive school environments.

Homies Empowerment. In Oakland, CA,  César A. Cruz has overseen the Homies Empowerment Program, an afterschool program that seeks to service gang-impacted and gang-involved youth. A Mexican immigrant himself, Dr. Cruz uses a local YMCA to create a place where students can leave the sometimes violent culture of their barrios and come together to form their own communities by being taught Ethnic studies, African American, and Latino studies courses and come together for dinner and socializing. Students also receive the opportunity to listen to visiting empowering speakers and service their community by participating in breakfast programs for undocumented day laborers, for example. More generally, however, Dr. Cruz seeks to combat the tendency of society to “demonize the homie” by revealing how gangs can serve as a source of love and protection for students who cannot find them elsewhere (The New Teacher Project, 2016). As a concerned community member (he reports attending five to six to ten funerals a year), he seeks to provide these students a safer alternative where they can find this love and community and promote peace among their barrios (CBS San Francisco, 2011).

Oakland Ebonics Resolution. In 1996, the Oakland School District came under controversy after attempting to instill what is now called the Oakland Ebonics Resolution, an attempt by the school board to recognize “Ebonics” or “African American vernacular English” (AAVE) as its own legitimate language to be used to standard English. The board came under criticism for the underlying implications of legitimizing AAVE (questions along the lines of “Are you saying the English we speak is so completely different that it deserves its own name?”). However, proponent of the resolution were ultimately intending to use it as a tool to help students learn English better: “by appreciating the home language of African American children, teachers would be better positioned to reframe their approach to teaching standard English” (Warren, 2016, p. 30). The resolution was revised eventually so that AAVE would be used only as an “instructional assistant,” but this particular case serves as an example of how, controversy aside, even school boards can collaborate to implement significant change in learning framework that uses language students are familiar with to understand concepts in the classroom better.


Limitations to keep in mind:

  • How to enroll students without attaching a stigma to the program
  • How to prevent overloading teachers of color with work outside their job requirements (especially if districts are not willing to provide additional compensation for the work discussed in this proposal)
  • How to get the all members of the school community to buy-in especially with regards to teachers that are firm believers that strict discipline is the only way to control students
  • How to prevent teachers from institutionalizing this system or believing this can be scripted/formulaic (Case studies reveal the possibility of a model being rendered useless when the delivery of the content does not change (Cohen, 1990))


Ultimately, this proposal seeks to debunk the notion that students who misbehave (1) do not deserve to be taught or cared for, and (2) that they do not have something beautiful and unique to offer to the classroom experience. Often the problem is that they are labeled as “other,” turning to “unorthodox” methods of processing emotion and sometimes trauma, and this labeling can convince a student school is not for them.

The power of mentorship is not to be underestimated. Having an advocate in school that makes a student feel heard and cared for can often trump the fear of even the most serious challenges from preventing the student to succeed academically–even when everyone else considers you “criminal” or somehow an outsider to the rest of society. Those that realize this will be not surprised at not only how an issue as serious as school misbehavior can be combated with love but also reminded of what a beautiful thing learning can be and how the diversity within students only makes the classroom experience that more colorful.


First and foremost, I would like to thank Mira Debs, who has been not only a brilliant professor in this class but also a caring mentor since I met her three semesters ago. Huge thank you to Lizzy Carroll, whose support as the Education Studies Scholar Program Director has opened the path to my endeavor into my academic passion. Special thanks to my peer editor, Momo Chapa; thank you for your input! Thank you to everyone else in the course whose thoughts and conversations have allowed me to think deeply about the issues regarding public schools and public policy. Thank you to the academics like Roberto Gonzales, César A. Cruz, Marc Lamont Hill, and Christopher Emdin who are doing such meaningful work in lending their voices to populations that for so long have gone unheard and are themselves inspirations to students like me. Last but not least, gracias a mi familia, the community of Westlake in Los Angeles, and the loved ones that have shaped me in my journey from there to where I am todayy’all are always in my mind.


Advancement Project. 2005. Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track. Retrieved from

Brayboy, Bryan McKinley Jones. 2014. “Culture, Place, and Power: Engaging the Histories and Possibilities of American Indian Education.” History of Education Quarterly 54(3): 395-402.

Brayboy, Bryan McKinley Jones & Angelina E. Castagno. 2009. “Self‐determination through self‐education: Culturally responsive schooling for Indigenous students in the USA.” Teaching Education 20(1): 31-53.

CBS San Francisco. 2011. “Jefferson Award Winner Paves Path for Oakland Gang Harmony.” CBS SF BayArea website. Retrieved from

Cohen, David K. 1990. “A Revolution in One Classroom: The Case of Mrs. Oublier,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 12(3): 311-329.

Emdin, Christopher. 2016. For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Emdin, Christopher. 2010. Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation. Boston, MA: Sense Publishers.

Gonzales, Roberto. 2015. Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Griffin, Ashley and Hilary Tackie. 2016. Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections From Black Teachers. Education Trust.

Heitzeg, Nancy. 2009. “Education Or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies And The School To Prison Pipeline.” St. Paul, MN: St. Catherine University Press.

Hill, Marc Lamont. 2009. Beats, Rhymes, and Classroom Life: Hip-Hop Pedagogy and The Politics of Identity. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. 1995. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” American Educational Research Journal 32(3): 465-91.

Lewis, Amanda E. and John B. Diamond. 2015. Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Chapter 3, pp. 45-81.

The New Teacher Project. 2016. “His Dream is to ‘Empower Homies’—Not Demonize Them.” TNTP Blog. Retrieved from

Noguera, Pedro. “What discipline is for: connecting students to the Benefits of Learning.” Pp. 132-137 in Everyday Anti-Racism: Getting Real About Race in Schools, edited Mica Pollock. New York: New Press.

Powell, Tunette. 2014. “My Son Has Been Suspended Five Times.  He’s 3,” Washington Post. Retrieved from

Rabe Thomas, Jacqueline. 2016. “Student Suspension Can Add to a Downward Spiral,” CT Mirror. Retrieved from

Shedd, Carla. 2015. Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Wald, Johanna and Daniel J. Losen. 2003. “Defining and redirecting a school-to-prison pipeline,” New Directions for Student Leadership 99: 9-5.

Warren, Cheraze A. 2016. “Making Relationships Work: Elementary-Age Black Boys and the Schools That Serve Them.” Pp. in Advancing Black Male Student Success from Preschool through Ph.D., edited by S. R. Harper and J. L. Wood. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Zehr, Howard. 2002. The little book of restorative justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books.