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Lithium Virtual school is bringing the carceral state into students’ homes

Oct. 27, 2020
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Last August, a Black seventh-grader in Colorado had the police called to his home for showing a toy gun to his virtual art class. His parents weren’t notified until the police were already on their way. While the police left Isaiah Elliot’s home without pressing charges, the entire ordeal was terrifying for the student and his parents. On top of that, he was handed a five-day suspension by the school. 

Many schools and districts across the country have transitioned online with only a few modifications to their normal behavior guidelines. This includes “standard” rules such as a mandatory dress code, asking to use the restroom, and prohibiting snacks in the middle of class. However, as many students and families are discovering, there’s a difference between enforcing these rules in the classroom versus within their own homes. As the internet has pointed out, the practice of these rules in students’ personal spaces seems like a breach of boundaries. On Twitter, @wokeSTEMteacher shared a long list of “musts” from students, singling out a particular expectation to have shoes on their feet. 

For me, the implementation of the same rules I had to follow during my K-12 years in virtual schooling has called into question if they were ever reasonable in the first place. 

It’s no secret that common school regulations disproportionately target, endanger, and criminalize young Black and brown students across the U.S. from the moment they enter the K-12 school system. From sexist and anti-Black dress codes, to the bias and racism of some teachers, many schools are far from a nurturing learning environment for these students. This has a real impact on BIPOC students, as racial achievement gaps persist throughout the country. 

Isaiah Elliot’s traumatizing experience with the police is just one example of how these harmful trends are still being perpetuated in virtual classrooms. Mounting evidence shows that online learning has continued to exacerbate racial disparities in education. This is due in part to unequal access to computers and the internet. According to investigative reporting from The Boston Globe, dozens of families had state social workers called to their homes last spring for students that had simply failed to log into their classes repeatedly. Many of these referrals were sent to districts that served low-income, Black and Latino populations. 

Before the pandemic, many schools resembled prisons—equipped with metal detectors, security cameras, and school resource officers (AKA actual sworn police officers on campus). In some districts in the South, students can be sent to heavily monitored “alternative schools” as punishment. Connie Wun, founder and director of Transformative Research: An Institute for Research and Social Transformation, says that for BIPOC students, schools are not just a pipeline into the prison system, but an extension of the carceral state in the U.S. 

What’s important for educators and school administrations to realize is that most of the students that face the harshest punishments in this system are also more vulnerable amidst the current pandemic. Black and brown communities have experienced significantly higher rates of infections and deaths caused by COVID-19. According to Morgan Johnson, a professor at Loyola University Chicago who studies school discipline, the added pandemic-induced stress on all students and their families means that most will need extra attention and patience from teachers. Many are likely to have “some real anger about how this situation has impacted themselves and their family,” she said in an interview with Chalkbeat. 

Another important concern, notes Johnson, is that while white students may be perceived as needing additional support by educators, students of color are likely to be labeled as “defiant,” and endure more severe punishment. 

Director of Educational Equity at the National Women’s Law Center, Adaku Onyeka-Crawford, suggests that instead of doubling down on dress codes and suspension policies, this could be a moment to relax and undo these rules. In the middle of a pandemic, what students may need is an extension of grace from educators to process the trauma and stress they’re experiencing. 

Illustration by Julia Tabor