Caregivers' moral narratives of their African American children's out-of-school suspensions: implications for effective family-school collaborations.
We approached our research question from a developmental cultural perspective in which we consider human growth as embedded within particular socio-cultural-historical contexts (for example, Rogoff, 2003). Historically, African Americans have emphasized education in the socialization of children (Baker, 2005; Billingsley, 1968; Hughes et al., 2006). Despite this continued emphasis, many African American children today face significant challenges in obtaining an education (Cunningham, Corprew, & Becker, 2009; Mandara, 2006). These challenges are reflected in the widening achievement gap between black and white children as they progress through the elementary school years (Swanson, Cunningham, & Spencer, 2003). Indeed, by high school, dropout rates for black youths are two times higher than rates for white youths (Aud et al., 2010).
School disciplinary policies can impede the academic success of African American children, especially African American boys, who have the highest rate of suspensions (Arcia, 2009). During the 2009-2010 school year, one in five black boys received a suspension (U.S. Department of Education, 2012). African American children who receive suspensions may miss academic content as well as other crucial educational and socialization opportunities, including interactions with educators who encourage their achievement (see Tatum, 2004).
Suspensions also may increase psychosocial risks to vulnerable children. Children who are suspended may feel disconnected from school (Cameron & Sheppard, 2006) and have increased involvement with the juvenile justice system (Council on Crime and Justice, 2008). Yet suspensions are generally ineffective in reducing students' chronic, problematic behaviors (Mendez & Knoff, 2003), and children with suspensions are rarely referred for professional services to address any underlying psychological or behavioral issues (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2003). Furthermore, suspended children may experience additional risks related to unsupervised time at home.
Suspensions also can harm vulnerable families. Children from low-income (Bruns, Moore, Stephan, Pruitt, & Weist, 2005) and single-parent (Dawson, 1991) families have particularly high rates of suspensions. If caregivers must miss work to meet with school administrators or supervise their children, they may risk losing jobs and income (Losen, 2011). Furthermore, if parents perceive suspensions to be problematic, those family--school relationships critical to effective schooling may be damaged (for example, Galindo & Sheldon, 2011; Semeke, Grabacz, Kwon, Sheridan, & Woods, 2010).
Family-school relationships are intricately intertwined with issues of race and ethnicity. Many African American parents, including those with lower incomes, view education as paramount for their children (Diamond & Gomez, 2004) and view their support of education as a parenting strength (Gibson, 2005). Unlike middle-class parents, however, many low-income parents are forced to seek education in poorly performing neighborhood schools. They express concerns about disciplinary practices and often seek to intervene to protect their boys from unjust treatment (Diamond & Gomez, 2004).
Issues of justice and oppression, however, are complex, and cultures vary in what constitutes harm and injustice. One of the ways in which culturally nuanced understandings of justice and oppression are communicated is through oral narrative. Narratives are temporally ordered, evaluated accounts of past experiences (Labov & Waletsky, 1967). They involve a coherent account of a tell-able event, framed by a constant moral stance. They are widely practiced in diverse human cultures (Miller, Cho, & Bracey, 2005).
Narrative is highly valued and avidly practiced in African American communities, not least because it supports the development of an adequate belief system for coping with oppression (Hale-Benson, 1987; Hudley, Haight, & Miller, 2003/2009). According to Gates (1989):
Of the cultural forms that emerged from their complicated historical process, only black music making was as important to the culture of African Americans as has been the fine art of storytelling.... Telling ourselves our own stories--interpreting the nature of our world to ourselves, asking and answering epistemological and ontological questions in our own voices and on our own terms--has as much as any single factor been responsible for the survival of African Americans and their culture.... The values we cherish and wish to preserve, the behavior we wish to censure ... the aspirations and goals that we most dearly prize, all of these things are encoded in stories ... stories that, in effect, we live by and through. (p. 17)
In this study, we use oral narratives as a lens to better understand the culturally nuanced meanings of suspensions for caregivers of African American children.
This research was conducted in the Minneapolis/ St. Paul, Minnesota metropolitan area from September 2009 to May 2012. In 2007-2008, Minnesota was among the 10 states with the highest rates of suspensions (Losen, 2011), with black children 3.5 times more likely than white children to be suspended (Allen, 2012).
Caregivers of African American children who had received an out-of-school suspension during the current or previous academic year were recruited through flyers at schools, social service agencies, and churches. Thirty female caregivers of 34 suspended children volunteered. They were biological mothers (63 percent) and other female relative caregivers between the ages of 20 and 60 years (mean age = 45). Ninety percent were African American. Eighty-seven percent of the families were headed by a single female caregiver, and 71 percent were receiving governmental assistance. All of the children were receiving free school lunches. Suspended children ranged in age from 5 to 17 years with a mean age of 12. They were predominately male (82 percent). They had experienced a mean of 2.4 suspensions (ranging from 1 to 10). Reasons for each child's most recent suspension included fighting (63 percent), disobeying rules (21 percent), and outbursts in class (8 percent).
The first author identifies as African American and has been conducting research with African American parents and caregivers for almost two decades (Gibson, 2005, 2007; Gibson, Nelson-Christinedaughter, Kwon, & Grotevant, 2006). Her most recent research has focused on issues of social justice within public schools. The second author identifies as white. She has focused her career on building a more culture-inclusive understanding of diverse children's development and welfare, including engaging African American perspectives (Gibson, 2005, 2007; Gibson et al., 2006). The four research assistants identify as African Americans or Africans.
The first author and the research assistants conducted in-depth, semistructured interviews in participants' homes. Interviews were audiotaped and lasted approximately one hour. They were conversation-like and began with a story starter: "How did you react when you first learned your child had been suspended?" Probes explored reasons for the child's suspensions, the child's reactions, and the caregivers' interactions with school officials.
Interviews were transcribed verbatim by research assistants familiar with the participants' dialect. Emic codes, that is, codes focused on the meanings ascribed by the participants to their experiences, were induced through repeated readings of the transcripts (see Schwandt, 2003) by two independent researchers. Codes focused on caregivers' understanding of the suspension, including problems that resulted in the suspension; responses to the child and school; and perspectives on the reasons for, and consequences of, the suspension. Next, caregivers' use of emotion talk (for example, emotion state labels such as angry and shocked) was identified to capture their affective responses to children's suspensions. The coding scheme was finalized through discussion. All interviews were then independently coded by two researchers who resolved any disagreements through discussion. Member checking and peer debriefing further enhanced the validity of our interpretations. In addition, our multicultural collaboration balanced insider and outsider perspectives by identifying culturally specific meanings, as well as the blind spots inherent in any single cultural vantage point.
Caregivers Valued School Success
Most caregivers expressed a strong desire for their children to succeed in school. Many described socialization practices intended to support their children's school success. One aspect of this positive socialization involved teaching children to be respectful:
They [her children] know what I expect, we definitely talk about it. "Respect people the way you want to be respected. Watch your language. You can't just talk to people ... [any] kind of way. No matter what age they are ... sex, race, we're all the same."
Another aspect of parents' positive socialization was instructions to follow school roles. One mother described her messages to her children:
Our rules are school roles. Schoolwork is very important and it's the only way they are gonna be able to allow their dreams to come tree when they get out of school. "In school you [her children] should be doing your work." We [she and her husband] take that very seriously ... very, very seriously.
Caregivers also warned their children about racial injustices that can impede their educational success:
"You are a black man," and I try to explain to him because he doesn't understand. "You are a black man in society, which means you are a statistic. Every time you do something bad, you going this category." And he said, "What is a statistic?" I said, "You said you wanted to play football right?" I say, "Kids that got behavior problems and kids that do not get good grades, cannot play football. How can you get that big house you want [if you don't do well in school]?" He is like, "Okay Auntie, I get it, I get it." I try to explain to him, like statistic wise, you are considered like all black men. It's hard to be black. Just by the color of your skin it is hard for you in society in this world, United States. And he is like, "Okay," but ... he might be a little bit too young [to understand].
Caregivers Recognized Their Children's Misbehavior
Some caregivers acknowledged that their children's behavior can be challenging for educators:
When the teacher tells him to do something, to do his work or whatever, and he don't want to do it, he just storms out and talks back to the teacher or whatever. And you know, the teacher ... ain't got time to be dealing with that, so they send him out the class and he gets angry at somebody else and his mouth get to going. So they sent him home.
One caregiver shared that educators had tried to work with her child: "So I do understand they may need to remove one child from the situation, whatever it is. In his case, he had been given chances to straighten himself up and he just couldn't handle it."
Caregivers Supported Appropriate Consequences
The majority of caregivers approved of schools imposing consequences that addressed their children's misdeeds. When making judgments about their children's behavior and the consequences imposed by educators, some caregivers described listening to their children and, in some cases, consulting with school personnel:
So in my home ... I let him know, I am not just going to just take what they [educators] tell me. I will listen to them [educators]. I will listen to you [child]. And I do have a little sense of my own, so then I will go from there. I think you don't do a good service when ... you just always defend them [children], that's not me. I will be by your [child's] side, but when you are wrong, you're wrong. You got to deal with that. If you right, you right. I will be there with you [child] either way.
Caregivers Viewed Out-of-School Suspensions as Morally Problematic
Although the majority of caregivers approved of schools imposing consequences that addressed their children's misdeeds, suspensions were described by many as morally problematic, that is, as unjust, harmful to children, negligent in helping children with underlying problems such as bullying, undermining caregivers' racial socialization, racially suspect, and emotionally difficult for caregivers.
Suspensions Are Unjust. Fifty-three percent of caregivers characterized their children's suspensions as unfair. They characterized them as disproportionate, undeserved, or inappropriate for the child's misdeed:
Sometimes the punishment doesn't fit the actual crime. I'm not saying this for my child. I'm saying this for kids in general. Sometimes they send them home ... when it's just ... minor stuff [as] opposed to the bigger picture of what is going on.
Caregivers viewed suspensions as particularly inappropriate and undeserved when their children were defending themselves. One mother explained that her son was "jumped" by other students when school staff members were not present:
He called me at work, very upset. He said, "Mom ... you won't believe! Can you believe they suspended me?" He was approached by other students that don't like him, and they approach him to fight. He tried to avoid the situation, and he told me, "Mom, I did not want to fight them, but, what was I supposed to do? I had to do something. I had to defend myself." I have a close relationship with my son. He knows that he can come to me even if he is wrong. I'm gonna listen. He explained to me that it was unfair ... he felt he was wrongfully suspended. He was very frustrated.
The problem of self-defense against bullies was pervasive in caregiver narratives. As one caregiver described:
His [her nephew's] side of the story was the little boy was a bully. He kept picking on him ... when he [nephew] first got here [home] he said, "Auntie, am I in trouble, if I tell you something?" I'm like, "Oh no, what happened?" He said, "I got suspended today for fighting." And I'm like, "Why?" And he said, because the little boy was bullying him and had been bullying him for a while. So the little boy hit him, and he hit him back. So I was like, "Okay, no you are not really in trouble for that because you cannot let somebody hit you." And I asked him like, "Did you tell the teacher? Were you telling the teacher about this?" And he said, "Yeah, I kept telling the teacher and he kept bullying me. They never did anything about it." I am like, "You had no other choice."
Another mother was frustrated that the context of her child's behavior was not taken into account. She was upset with her son for getting a detention, but was really angry with the teacher for not listening to her son and escalating the punishment to an out-of-school suspension:
He [her son] tried to tell the teacher that he could not stay after school for detention because there is no bus and the teacher would not listen. He [son] was more upset because he felt that the teachers [weren't] listening to his explanation to why he could not stay after school.
A few caregivers also viewed suspensions as inappropriate because educators failed to consider their children's behaviors in relation to their development, or failed to follow their children's Individual Education Plans (IEPs). One mother explained, "My son got suspended for hollering. He's five years old in kindergarten. I just disagree with the whole suspension thing." Another caregiver commented, "With their IEPs in place there [are] certain procedures the school is supposed to follow, so that they don't have situations that escalate to suspensions."
Often, neither the children nor their parents were aware of school disciplinary policies prior to the children's suspensions. One caregiver explained: "I did not know at that time, the school has a zero tolerance policy on fighting. It does not matter who started the fight."
Suspensions Harm Children. Caregivers described suspensions as setting children on a trajectory of short- and long-term failure. As one caregiver described, "I tried to explain to him, 'You have to really watch what you do and say in life because that will follow you. I am trying to get you prepared in life.'" Another explained: "I always said to him, 'I don't want you to fight ... I want you to grow up. I want you to be successful. I don't want you to have that kind of record in life.'" Another mother stated:
When they are kicked out of school, they miss school work. So, now they are behind with school work, as well as being at home and doing absolutely nothing. He is going to be looked upon as a failure because he is going to be missing all the school work.
Caregivers also described circumstances in which suspensions rewarded children's inappropriate behavior. As one caregiver explained,
I don't like suspensions because to me it sends false information to a child. It says, 'If I act up and I act out, I'm gonna get to leave school. And I get to hang out at home.' And that's not a good message for the kids.
Suspensions Do Not Help Children with Underlying Problems. Some caregivers expressed concern that in suspending children, educators were negligent in addressing the problems underlying their children's misbehaviors. One caregiver, for example, described the bind that children are in when faced with bullies.
His explanation was, "I'm tired of them bullying me. They think I'm soft and I'm weak and I'm tired of getting beat up so I fought back." ... The problem is with the district and the state. The bullying laws are really soft. Kids don't see a way out. There is nobody that they can turn to ... you stand up for yourself and defend yourself then you get in trouble. You get suspended. So it's just really hard. There is just no way around it, it's just difficult.
Another caregiver expressed her frustration with educators' inadequate responses to bullying, "So my point with the teacher was, 'He kept telling you that this kid was bullying him. Why didn't you start action with the kid to have him stop being bullied?'"
Another caregiver described her concerns that school personnel have not accepted responsibility for ensuring her children's safety at school. She concluded:
And I done tell my children, they have a right to be loved, respected, and protected. When I leave them in the care of the public school, they should be protecting them like I would protect them. If not, they should stay home with me.
Suspension Policies Undermine Caregivers' Racial Socialization. Racial socialization refers to the processes through which ethnic and racial minority parents prepare their children to deal with injustices (Hughes et al., 2006). Caregivers described socialization practices intended to keep their African American children physically and emotionally safe outside of the home, including defending themselves from bullies. Caregivers taught their children to avoid fighting, but also to defend themselves. One caregiver described her advice to her son:
"Don't ever start a fight, but you cannot run from one. Because if you do, they're going to come for you every day. That's the way society is, that the way kids are. You go to school, do what you're supposed to do. If somebody hit you, you gonna need to defend yourself."
Suspensions Are Racially Suspect. Many caregivers viewed suspensions as racially problematic. One mother expressed her view that race was a factor in her child's suspension: "The bottom line is that black kids, especially, are singled out. Especially when it comes to the suburban schools [and] that keeps them from learning." Some caregivers explicitly pointed to school staff members' lack of cultural understanding. For example:
The school is 90% kids of color, but the staff is 100% white. There's a tendency of not understanding you or your culture, so they just label you ... the kids have problems there, and their first thing is suspend--"Kick them out," "Go away!" ... [Educators need] just a basic understanding [of] where people are coming from.
Another parent explained:
It goes back to culture.... They have to take into consideration people's backgrounds. Try to be a little bit understanding and kind of open-minded about peoples' experiences. I usually find out about people or teachers whom he does not get along with or things that he felt were not handled well. Like he told me: "Mom I think this one teacher, seems that he always notices the black kids, but when the white kids are on their phones, he never has a problem with it." My son is real observant about those kinds of things ... I taught my kids that you want to be treated fairly and make sure that and he is always observant about that.
Suspensions Are Emotionally Laden Events for Caregivers. Consistent with their interpretations of children's out-of-school suspensions as morally problematic, all caregivers' narratives contained emotional language. This talk ranged in intensity, for example, from, "I was surprised because I didn't think that he would be the type of child to get suspended," to "I was extremely shocked." In addition to tone of voice, caregivers used a variety of strategies to communicate emotion. Most caregivers used quoted speech to underscore emotionally significant reactions and exchanges, for example, "I mean, the first time it was shock; 'Suspended why?' And the other the second time it was worse, 'Why should they [be] suspending you now?'" Caregivers also used repetition and intensifiers to convey emotion, for example, "It enraged me. It really enraged me."
Perhaps most clearly, when asked how they felt when they first learned their children were suspended, all caregivers labeled their own emotional states as negative. Some caregivers used emotion state labels conveying anger, such as "mad," "angry," "enraged," and "pissed off." Other commonly used emotion state words were "shocked," "upset," "disappointed," "frustrated," and "disgusted." The majority of caregivers used a combination of terms to communicate their emotional states, for example, "I was upset and embarrassed at the same time. Shocked." Some caregivers also expressed sadness about the impact of suspensions in general: "I feel bad for children who are getting suspended just for not getting ... help ... the most horrible thing."
Caregivers' language also reflected a strong identification with the suspended children. For example, a number of caregivers used plural pronouns when describing their children's suspensions: "By the time we got suspended," "When they suspended us ..." "We are just trying to make it through ... his eighth grade year."
Suspensions Can Contribute to the Disengagement of African American Families from School. Given caregivers' moral evaluations of suspensions and their emotional reactions, it is not surprising that some described suspensions as contributing to their disengagement from their children's schools. Most notably, some caregivers reported that they withdrew or seriously considered withdrawing their children from school after the suspension. One caregiver reported:
Well, when the teachers gave me the explanation, they made it seem like, "Oh, this is just a fighting situation." They never took in account that he was defending himself ... It enraged me; it really enraged me.... I would have withdrawn my son.
Our goal has been to understand, not to evaluate, the perspectives of caregivers of African American children who have been suspended. This understanding is critical if social workers are to support effective family-school partnerships for reducing suspensions of African American children. When 30 caregivers were invited to share their reactions to their children's out-of-school suspensions, emotionally laden moral narratives emerged. Most caregivers expressed negative emotions such as anger and frustration at school policies and professionals. Most caregivers also described out-of-school suspensions as morally problematic. Many viewed suspensions as unfair; disproportionate responses to children's misdeeds; harmful to children; and negligent of children's real problems, especially bullying. Caregivers described teaching their African American children strategies to keep them physically and emotionally safe, including physically defending themselves from bullies, socialization practices that were undermined by schools' zero tolerance policies. Caregivers' perceptions that educators failed to respect these home rules resulted, in part, in their interpretations of suspensions as racially motivated.
It is also noteworthy to consider consequences of suspensions not mentioned by caregivers. All caregivers had low incomes, and most were single, female heads of households. Some had to leave their jobs to supervise their children or to attend school conferences during working hours. Yet the consequences of missing work were not discussed. It may be that existing reports that suspensions have economic consequences for families (Losen, 2011) do not extend to our sample, or the morally problematic nature of suspensions is more salient to these caregivers. Alternately, our respondents may have had relatively more time or extended family resources to absorb the economic consequences of suspensions than caregivers who did not respond.
Understanding the stance of many African American parents toward suspensions as expressed through their narratives may be enhanced through consideration of historical and cultural contexts. In all cultures, matters of morality involve emotionally laden concerns about justice, harm, interpersonal responsiveness and caring, but substantial cultural variation exists in how these issues are identified and weighted. In this study, caregiver perceptions of suspensions may be connected to a historical context involving the lack of equal access to education, and traditional valuing of education in African-American communities (for example, Baker, 2005). Throughout U.S. history, many of the struggles of African Americans have been for fairness and equal access to public education. In addition, caregiver perspectives may be connected to culturally based ideas about justice (for example, Haight, 2002) that are challenged by concerns about inequitable treatment within U.S. public schools (Losen, 2011). Within many African American communities, issues of justice and equality not only are heavily weighted, but also have deeply felt religious meanings. Scholars of African American history and culture have argued that spiritual belief systems nurtured within African American churches uniquely elaborate concepts of justice and equality and serve as protective factors for children (for example, Haight, 2002; Hudley et al., 2003/2009).
Racial socialization practices within some families may create challenges for some children in school. Some messages conveyed by African American parents are intended to prepare their children to be emotionally and physically safe as members of an oppressed group. When children live in dangerous neighborhoods, socialization messages may include physically defending oneself. Educators, who may not be in a position to determine the underlying reasons for physical aggression, may prioritize maintaining safety and order within the school. Thus, if aggressive behavior, including self-defense, results in disciplinary actions by the school, children may experience a disconnection between socialization messages of home and school.
We approach racial disproportionality in suspensions as a social justice issue through the lens of capacity building (for example, Crisp, Swerissen, & Duckett, 2000). Capacity building involves the use of clients' strengths to attain a goal or healthy outcome. African American families historically and contemporarily face social challenges in dealing with the U.S. public education system. Yet most African American parents strongly desire their children to be educated and to gain upward mobility (Baker, 2005). In working collaboratively with African American parents, educators, and their allies, social workers can use the following four strategies.
1. Find Alternatives to Out-of-School Suspensions. As an intervention, suspensions generally are ineffective in reducing children's chronic, problematic behaviors (for example, Mendez & Knoff, 2003) and can have unintended negative consequences. Other strategies are necessary to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment at school. First, underlying issues that lead to violence, such as bullying, must be addressed. When it is necessary to remove a child from the classroom, in-school suspensions, which are widely used in some schools, can allow students to remain in a structured, adult-supervised learning environment. When out-of-school suspensions are necessary, educators should carefully consider context and child development. The zero tolerance policy should not be interpreted and practiced as "zero professional judgment." It is precisely in those cases of students' violence and disruption of the learning environment that educators' full wisdom and experience are most critical in resolving underlying issues. Social workers can assist educators, students, and families in finding creative solutions to children's problems.
2. Understand Caregivers' Perspectives and Mobilize the Energy behind Their Anger. Caregivers in this study wanted their children to succeed and looked to the schools as an avenue to upward mobility. They also had strong feelings about what they labeled as the unfair and unjust treatment of their children. Social workers can collaborate with educators to help shift caregivers' negative emotional reactions and to mobilize the energy behind those reactions for addressing shared goals of supporting children's educational success. Specifically, this calls for social workers to use their skills to provide training to administrators and teachers in culturally relevant and culturally sensitive practices and policies. In addition to discrete training sessions, ongoing consultation may also be beneficial in addressing out-of-school suspensions.
3. Seek Common Ground with Families. We suspect that the goals of most caregivers in this study were consistent with those of most educators in their children's schools. Caregivers and educators share concerns with dealing effectively with children's inappropriate behaviors and reducing violence in the schools. Social workers can help educators and caregivers to find common ground in the face of conflicting perspectives. Once common ground is identified, it becomes possible to engage families, for example, in initiatives to stop bullying.
4. Consider Racial Context. Although some caregivers believed that race did not play a role in the suspension of their children, the majority expressed the opposite view. African American caregivers must socialize their children to survive in the sometimes conflicting cultural contexts of home and school. If these contexts have incongruent or conflicting norms, for example, in dealing effectively with aggressive peers, then caregivers and educators need to help children make sense of and respond to different rules at school and home. Educators, social workers, and caregivers can ill afford to shy away from conversations about race. Social workers are trained to start and maintain difficult conversations on race, help participants to be nondefensive and self-reflective, and act as mediators between educators and caregivers.
A primary limitation of this study emerged from recruitment methods. Participants responded to fliers at schools, social service agencies, and churches. Those who responded to such solicitations may vary in systematic ways from those who chose not to respond or who did not frequent the establishments where the fliers were posted. Our analysis describes a range of caregiver responses but may not include the entire spectrum of caregiver responses to children's out-of-school suspensions. A second limitation is that this study focused on caregivers. In our ongoing research, we are including the diverse perspective of caregivers, children, and educators and recruiting directly from schools, which will enable us to determine characteristics of families who do and do not choose to participate.
Original manuscript received August 4, 2012
Final revision received October 22, 2012
Accepted November 19, 2012
Advance Access Publication June 20, 2013
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Priscilla A. Gibson, PhD, LICSW, is associate professor, and Wendy Haight, PhD, is professor and Gamble-Skogmo Chair in Child Welfare and Youth Policy, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, 1404 Gortner Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55108; e-mail: email@example.com. The research was funded by the Agriculture Experiment Station. The authors acknowledge the contributions of Evie Kalomo, Eveline Kebaya, and Mallerie Shirley, who served as research assistants.