7 Steps to Take If Your Black Child Is Being Singled Out At School

For parents of students who are on the receiving end of unfair treatment, diligence and open communication are essential problem-solving skills.

Shot of a young girl looking sad at her desk in a classroom
Photo: Getty Images

This new school year means that parents and teachers are mutually bringing a lot of worry and expectations to the table, especially after nearly three years of COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning. As a parent, there are ways to start the new relationship off on the right foot between you and your child's teacher.

While it's true that many school districts have systemic issues relating to race and equity, it's important to try to take a measured approach if you suspect your child's teacher has said or done something insensitive or indicative of racial bias, or has unfairly singled out your Black child.

Pre-COVID, when Sierra Tarver, a Brooklyn, New York homeschooling and stay-at-home mom, experienced her son's charter school repeatedly singling him out towards the early part of that school year, it made her feel extremely wary of "zero tolerance" policies. Tarver says, back then she didn't fully realize that racialized bias and unequal treatment happen all of the time, especially in schools with "zero tolerance" policies and majority Black and brown student populations.

The first concern was Tarver's then-elementary school-age son and his not-yet-diagnosed sleep apnea. Due to his medical condition, Tarver's son would frequently fall asleep in class. According to her, when her son fell asleep, it was treated as a disciplinary issue, instead of a medical issue. She says the white teachers at the Brooklyn-area charter school frequently singled Tarver's son out for falling asleep, saying that he was being disrespectful.

"The teachers would try to make him stand up during the entire class," Tarver recalls. Unfortunately, the exchanges between the school and herself became incredibly strained. Tarver felt the school was more focused on trying to humiliate her son every day than helping him to solve the problem.

Additionally, her son's charter school had a strict uniform policy. "If my son wore a sweatshirt that was not part of the uniform, he would get constantly verbally reprimanded in front of the class," says Tarver.

"These interactions always escalated to a one-week suspension and then another one-week suspension and so on," she says. These suspensions were for infractions against the uniform policy and a list of related issues. The school alleged her son started talking back to his teachers.

The reality was, Tarver says, he was cold in the classroom and didn't want to be forced to take his sweater off. "The last straw was when a teacher tried to physically pull the sweater off of him," Tarver says. Ultimately, Tarver ended up taking her son out of that school.

For many students and parents, these issues start to add up. And perhaps not every microaggression warrants a meeting with the teacher or staff—but usually, Black parents know when it's time to initiate a meeting with their child's teacher. This is especially true if there is a pattern of extreme and damaging behavior like discipline disparities or frequently publicly calling out the African-American kids for doing something wrong while ignoring white children who exhibit the same behavior.

Most schools have specific protocols to follow when it comes to communicating with teachers—or trying to understand how to address a potential issue.

Talk to Your Child (Again) And Document Exactly What Happened

It's likely that any Black parent might get upset if they hear that the teacher is singling out your child—but verify all of the information first. Sit down with your child again and make sure you have all the facts and know exactly what happened. Let your child know they are not going to get in trouble for telling the truth.

Carve out a time and space to talk one-on-one with your child and "interview" them. Have them start from the beginning and listen and jot down the basic facts of what happened. Document the times/dates, the name(s) of the teacher and what class your child was in, and all relevant information. Ask—don't accuse—your child if there is any background information you need to know they may have left out, like if they had any previous disciplinary issues or friction.

If your child recalls that more than one incident happened with the same teacher or a different teacher, fill in all of the relevant information, with the specific dates attached. If your child says that other Black students are also not treated well, follow up with their parents later.

Don't Rush to Judgment

If your child comes home from school and lets you know an upsetting issue happened with the classroom teacher (or with one of their period teachers for high school students), it's easy for parents to be quick to make a snap judgment about what happened.

Try to sift through the information, assess what happened, and think about what you would like as a fair resolution to the issue. When you are speaking to your child, focus on first-hand incidents that involve your child. Put a pin on any story that cannot be immediately verified.

Follow the School's Chain of Command

Don't be too quick to and bypass the teacher or adult responsible at the time of the incident. It's probably not a good idea to quickly dash off an email to request a meeting with the principal or even start making calls requesting meetings with school administrators on the school district level, before first having a meeting with the classroom teacher.

Bring a Friend or Relative for Moral Support

When it comes to school meetings for this school year, many meetings will continue to be virtual instead of in-person. Having a friend for support on hand doesn't hurt, but let the teacher know there are multiple people on the Zoom call or that the phone is on speaker. Friends and family should be there to listen or for moral support.

While it depends on different factors, including the age of the child, most schools generally believe that a child should not be part of these kinds of meetings. Sometimes, your child will be invited to be part of a meeting for a few minutes and then the rest of the time will be adults only. During any virtual meeting, if your child is at home with you or within earshot, keep them occupied with something else.

Think about what might be a fair resolution. Your framework should be on your child's safety and well-being in school and the classroom and their ability to do classwork and their social-emotional health.

Do Your Research on the School's Racial Demographics, Equity Committees, and Culture

Whether you are new to the school or not, it's important for your general knowledge that you obtain detailed information on the school's racial and ethnic demographics, including diversity among teachers and school staff.

Websites like InsideSchools and GreatSchoolsmay give you basic information on school demographics, school culture, school policies, and more. And check the reviews. They can be a wealth of information.

Reach Out to Parents Whose Children May Have Experienced Similar Issues

Lisa Watson*, who is in education herself, (her name has been changed for privacy reasons) says her then-12-year-old son Jerry* was actually well-liked by teachers and staff within his Poughkeepsie, New York majority-white public school. The problem, says Watson, was that teachers appeared to turn a blind eye to the frequent student-on-student bullying and racial epithets that were thrown around every day in casual conversation at school, subtly reinforcing that Black kids were "less than."

But one day at school, Jerry recalls having an authorized bathroom break. A teacher saw him from behind, and within seconds started to aggressively verbally berate him in a loud harsh tone. Jerry was confused about what he had done wrong, since there were a couple of white students in the hallway, as well. He also already knew that the teachers often felt they had to have a firm hand with the schools' so-called "bad" kids—all of whom were children of color.

Once Jerry turned around and identified himself to remind the teacher who he was, the teacher's demeanor changed from hostile to friendly.

After your meeting with the teacher or school staff, get in touch with the PTA, the school's parent coordinator, and find ways to get involved in bringing speakers or training workshops to the school. Administrators may be more likely to consider green-lighting a school-wide workshop or teacher training if the funding is being covered by the PTA or from other sources.

See if other parents may have experienced similar issues with teachers and/or staff in the school. Feel free to swap stories, but always verify where your sources of information are coming from. If the issue is more widespread and multiple parents start to speak out and request meetings on this topic, the school administration will definitely take notice.

Prioritize Your Child's Safety and Wellbeing

As a parent, it's essential that you communicate with your child on a regular basis to see if there have been any improvements or positive changes in the teacher-student relationship, or if the child is settling in after getting a new teacher.

No parent should let a teacher's or school's racialized abuse go on. In these rare toxic situations, sometimes the school may start to unfairly accuse your child of violating class or school rules. If you ever see signs of retaliation or you see that child is constantly in emotional and/or mental distress and/or avoiding school, it may be time to change schools or consider homeschooling for your child's safety and well-being.

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