Elliot Dunwald and Reese Hil
Malcom* was playing with a BB gun. He was with two friends, but they are white, and he is black. They shot at a shed, and then the cops came. Malcom served 17 months and his friends served no time. What Malcom never knew was that
he had been on the track to incarceration since kindergarten.
“[I’ve been suspended] from kindergarten through freshman year,” Malcom said. “It was all the little things. Hopping the fence to get the ball or [getting into] arguments with teachers. It got to the point where I had my own designated spot in the office because they suspended me so much for little things. And then, obviously, I’d start getting annoyed and start building my anger. And it progressively got worse.”
Malcom hasn’t felt trusted at school since he was a child, and he still feels untrusted at City.
“[Feeling watched] made me feel like I couldn’t be trusted at school,” Malcom said. “I should feel like I can walk through the hallways and not have to look over my shoulder. The hall monitors pop up on me random times. They’re looking for me.”
The United State’s criminal justice system is the largest in the world. Iowa is third worst in the nation for back vs. white racial disparities in prisons, according to a study on the U.S. Bureau of Statistics by the Sentencing Project in 2016. These disparities also affect City High. Black students across the district account for 20 percent of the district’s student population and 60 percent of both in- and out-of-school suspensions.
“The way [staff] treat black men at City High is ridiculous,” a black student at City said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. And we always love to talk about how we’re the school that leads, every student has an equal chance of success, all of that good stuff. But unless you’re a student athlete, and even if you’re a student athlete, your life [as a black man] is treated as if you’re always on the verge of doing something wrong. People will literally walk down the hallways, and if they see a black boy walking down the hallway will stop them to ask where they’re going, what they’re supposed to be doing.”
In an effort to address issues related to race, the district staff is currently undergoing a two-year implicit bias training.
“Being suspended a lot of times is up to the judgment of hall monitors and teachers,” Franklin Hornbuckle ‘20 said. Hornbuckle has received one detention, and he was the only white person in the room. “If you have implicit biases toward African Americans or minorities, then tiny judgments [by hall monitors and teachers] make a huge difference on whether or not they decide the students are up to bad things.”
The bias of individuals beyond school staff plays a role in a student’s chances of being suspended or even incarcerated. The bias of school staff, police, lawyers, and judges affects whether or not minors make it into the prison system. When Karen*, a Caucasian student at City, was illegally smoking marijuana with friends, they were spoken to by a Caucasian policeman.
“I put my hands up,” Karen said. “It was very clear that we were smoking weed because there was a pipe, a lighter and weed on the table. We looked very high. I repeated multiple times, ‘Please don’t tell my mom.’ I felt very sure that I wasn’t going to get arrested. The thought never crossed my mind. I felt safe.”
Karen has also been high at school numerous times, and she did not fear consequences at school or in the presence of a policeman.
“I was never scared of being suspended, expelled, kicked out, or even [getting] detention,” Karen said. “I was always thinking, ‘This teacher is going to think poorly of me,’ or, ‘They’re going to tell my mom during conferences.’”
Karen was not caught** for being under the influence at school, and when she was caught by the police she received a warning. A charge for possession of marijuana would not have incarcerated Karen, but it could have hindered her participation in school events like sports and clubs.
“I’ve had friends of color who were suspended for things that my white friends have done, gotten away with things, and never had to face the consequences,” a black student at City said. “People show up to school high all the time.”
When Karen was under the influence at school, she said she felt comfortable because she thought her teachers would not report her. And they didn’t. Clarissa*, a black student, was not so lucky.
“A student pointed at me and then [the teacher] had me reported,” Clarissa said. “We went down to the office and they searched my backpack, but there wasn’t anything in there. They were basically telling me how they could call the police on me. I didn’t know what to say. I knew what I did, so I couldn’t complain about any consequences.”
Clarissa received four days of suspension total after the incident. Once she was back in school, staff members spoke with her about how she could still participate in her sport despite having been suspended. Staff discussed how she could start the season earlier in order to fully compete in the sport. The district’s policy on events like this is included in its good conduct policy.
“Black, brown, green, or whatever, we have a code of conduct here at City High that we follow for athletic suspensions. It is the same as when a student gets an F in a class. The rules [are] the same,” Gerry Coleman, dean of students at City High, said.
If a student is suspended in or out of school, the administration decides which level of offense that suspension belongs in within the good conduct policy. Once the administration decides the level of the suspension, coaches must abide by the punishment that follows it.
“Once that decision is made the coach has to honor that,” John Bacon, principal of City High said. “I couldn’t more strongly defend our record on good conduct penalty’s enforcement. If there is a documented, clear-cut case that meets the threshold of the good conduct penalty, it is enforced 100 percent of the time. People can say things and they’re there. They just have a misunderstanding because the reality is that there are things that our athletes may do and get away with, unfortunately.”
Despite the administration’s belief that the good conduct policy is consistently enforced, some students still believe athletes can avoid serving full penalties for drug-related offenses.
“I think sports-wise, I don’t know that everyone has the same consequences,” Clarissa said. “I know [REDACTED, a student athlete at City] has definitely been caught multiple times doing stuff and they’re still participating in their sport. I was at a party with [REDACTED] this summer that got busted. I left before it got busted, but they were still there and their mom talked to the police so he could do his full sports season.”
Caucasian students are 56.6 percent of the district’s student population and 32.3 percent of total suspensions.
“They can’t drug-test [a certain City High sport team] because these [athletes] will continue to do drugs,” Karen said. “The school has a good [sport] team, and we like that type of thing. I think that if a student brings something that the administration sees as valuable to them, then they will allow students to do things that they otherwise would receive harsher consequences.”
There are many causes for the disproportionality in suspensions. In order to be suspended, students are first reported by their teacher, a hall monitor, or a fellow student, but not all teachers, hall monitors, and students report their suspicions. This is sometimes due to personal beliefs and sometimes due to lack of trust in the administration’s response to reports. This means that student discipline is at the discretion of individuals.
“When it’s tangible, when it’s smoking weed, it’s vaping, it’s punching someone right in the nose; that is concrete, more than it is if you’re bullying someone,” Scott Jespersen, City High’s assistant principal, said.
In addressing the multitude of potential causes of the discipline disparities between white and black students at City, the school turned to the work of Ruby Payne, a white woman who works in education leadership.
“[Payne’s] theory was that sometimes with African American students and white teachers, there is a culture difference,” Jespersen said. “Some of it is spatial, some of it’s volume, different things. But I don’t think you can take one thing and say, ‘Oh, that’s why [the disproportionality is there].’”
The issue of representation in City High’s staff came up numerous times in a staff meeting in November 2019 where students spoke to staff members about bettering the school. Despite pressure from students and families, the district has yet to hire more teachers of color.
“Our staff doesn’t look like 40 percent of our students,” Jesperson said. “As somebody that helps hire all the teachers here, we’re not seeing [African American] applicants for our positions.”
Finding solutions to an issue like racial disparities is undeniably difficult. Latasha Deloach, the vice chair of the Iowa Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee, a subcommittee of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Council, believes this topic becomes even more complex when white individuals run the institutions that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
“You have people who are running the school who’ve never had those experiences,” Deloach said. “[Administrators] only hear about [struggling students] and they feel bad for them. They have pain in their hearts for them. But they’re looking through a looking glass. [Administrators] are looking in like, ‘Man, that looks rough over there,’ but they have no idea what it is like. They don’t know what that hustle is like. Where [students are] trying to figure out what [their] next meal is coming from, or how [they’re] gonna make sure [their] brothers and sisters are cool. If you don’t know that life, if it’s just something you’ve read about, then you don’t understand why people make the choices that they make.”
The real cause of the disproportionality could be many things. Whether the staff doesn’t look like the students and there’s a ‘cultural difference,’ or teachers aren’t consistent in reporting students bad behaviors, Deloach believes the root of the issue is something no one wants to talk about.
“We ask why there are so many suspensions, but we’re not looking at the core reason of what leads to these things: racism,” Deloach said. “We don’t want to talk about that.”
When interviewed, Jespersen did not mention racism as a potential reason for the disproportionality or lack thereof.
“I don’t think our data is disproportionate anymore,” Jespersen said.
However, many students of color at City feel like they are watched more than other students in school and in the community.
“Everybody in town kind of got that eye on me because I’m that big black man around town,” Malcom said. “Because I’m [a] six foot two African American teen. And people are fearful of that.”
Malcom has never felt like anyone was truly fighting for him. Almost no one was fighting for him in school, in court, or prison. The only person fighting for him, he said, was his mom and one resource officer in eighth grade, but it wasn’t enough. 17 months of his life were spent in rehabilitation centers where he was verbally and physically abused. A staff member at one center grabbed, pulled, and stepped on Malcom’s leg while his knee was broken, all without repercussions.
“They tackled me down to the ground,” Malcom said. “I got scars on my body from just the restraints. I got this big one here on my arm from a door because they tried to throw me in a room and my arm was sliced by the door.”
Some members of the black community purposely or inadvertently attempt to avoid situations like Malcom’s by immersing themselves amongst their white peers.
“When I was a student, I saw other girls going through it,” Deloach said. “I had the advantage of growing up to the age of nine in Iowa, so I grew up in predominantly white spaces. I had years of studying white people to learn how I need to perform, to stay out of trouble. I knew how to assimilate enough to stay under the radar. I knew the rules, those invisible rules that no one talks about. I know about how my blackness is not acceptable in those spaces.”
According to a report by the ACLU on U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, in Iowa, black girls are nine times more likely to be arrested than white girls.
“I saw [a hall monitor] physically [grab] a black boy who tried to cut in line at lunch,” a black student at City said. “He grabbed him by his arms and dragged him out of the line. He was being extra aggressive. The person wasn’t even resisting. They were like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I get it. Okay, bye.’ And then, right there, [a hall monitor] escorted [REDACTED, a Caucasian student] right to the front.”
The district has made efforts to counter issues surrounding racial disparities in suspension and discipline throughout the district, but Deloach says the solution is more about student’s mental health than their race.
“To find a solution, I think we have to look at the human condition of our kids,” Deloach said. “Kids just want spaces in their school where they can go and seek help when the day was too much.”
The recommended student-to-counselor ratio for schools in the United States is 250 to 1, and according to the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, Iowa’s student to counselor ratio is 378 to 1. Only three states meet the recommended ratio.
“[The district] has other things in their hand that they think is a bigger priority, which means that it’s not really student first,” Deloach said. “It means you have to go back to the mission of the district. It’s more about education and global leaders than, ‘We’re gonna send you out there educated but you’re going to be emotionally deficient. You’re going to be able to do all these amazing things and get all these great grades in school but you’ll have a higher chance of suicide.’ We know that we have a mental health crisis. We know the answers. And we know the solutions. We just choose not to pay for them.”
*Students’ names were changed to protect their anonymity as minors.
**Clarification: Karen was never caught at City High for violating drug policies. Her warning by a police officer quoted in this story happened off school grounds.
City High administration has followed student code of conduct for all students they have caught violating the code for drugs or fighting.
***A correction to the original title: black students are not two times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, they are over five times more likely to be suspended.