Parenting for Liberation: Interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline
Yesterday, I went through my second-grader’s folder to review his homework and sign my initials on his daily agenda. In his folder, I was shocked to find a form with a personal note written asking me to sign and return. My eyes zoomed in on the checked box that read “detention” followed by a filled in “1-day” duration.
The form described an “incident” on the playground and “reported” that my son corroborated what happened and “admitted” to striking another student in the stomach. With so much data about school-to-prison pipeline (such as preschool aged Black children being 3.6 times more likely to face suspension than their White peers), I began to feel like I’d been struck in the stomach thinking about what it would mean for my second-grade Black boy to be held in detention.
I immediately called my son downstairs, asking him to explain to me what happened.
Me: Did you hit another student in the stomach at school?
Son: (hesitates) no…
Me: Tell me the truth.
Son: (more definitive) No.
Me: Well, read this note and explain to me what it is saying…
My son went on to read the note aloud with my support. He then recalled the incident and, long story short, admitted to throwing a ball in frustration after being taunted for losing the game. I realized that I read the word “struck” to mean hit or punched directly, hence my confusion. (My son is very literal, so when I asked “Did you hit anyone?” his answer was “No.”).
We discussed why his behavior was problematic and inappropriate. We discussed what it means to be a poor sport and how to improve his sportsmanship. He was very remorseful and I knew that he understood what he did was wrong. When told him that his consequence was one day of detention, he was afraid.
“What’s detention” he asked.
I explained, using an example from a highly popular elementary book series Captain Underpants: “Detention is where students are required to go either during or after school as a punishment (sort of like timeout).”
He had lots of questions: “Where is it? How long do I have to stay? Is it all day? Is it in the principal’s office?”
His questions turned into worry, fear, and anxiety: “I don’t want to go to the principal’s office! I don’t want to go to detention!” Tears welled up in his eyes and I had to help calm my baby down using two of my mama super powers—prayer and advocacy.
I invited him to pray to God to help him with his fear of detention. His prayer sounded like a plea: “Dear God, please, I don’t want to go to detention. I’m sorry for being frustrated. I promise to be better and make better choices. Amen.”
A bit later, he confessed, “Mom, I’m still a little worried about school tomorrow.”
I told him to follow me into my home office. I began to email his teacher. He was curious. “What are you gonna say to her?” I talked him through my email (below). During the writing, I asked my son what did he thought would be a better solution than detention. He preferred that he and his buddy talk it out and that he apologize, so I followed his request in the email:
I saw the note about an incident on the playground. I spoke with my son about what happened and he is very emotional and fearful of the idea of “detention.” He’s literally crying and shaken up.
I need your help in understanding the severity of the consequence of one-day of detention. What does that entail? Would he spending the entire day in detention? Would this take away from his learning time?
I am worried that the consequence doesn’t match the incident appropriately and would like to know why the other options (a warning and parent contact) weren’t applied (especially as this is his first incident)?
I would love to talk to you about this and offer an alternative school discipline practice that is more restorative as opposed to punitive. Restorative justice/peace circles where two children can come together with a teacher mediator to discuss what’s causing conflicts in their relationship and apologize, be accountable, and make commitments to improve their behavior.
Please let me know how we can resolve this in a less punitive way so my son is not so distraught and sad.
We finished the email, I returned the note to his folder—unsigned, with a note communicating that I did not agree with detention and to check her email—and we went to bed. As he went to sleep he said he felt “more better.”
The next day I received an email (below) soon after school started:
“Thank you for letting me know about the history…It was surprising to me when he told me what he did out of frustration because it’s so unlike him. I have no intention of having him serve detention, I am forwarding your email to the principal… I really appreciate your letting me know and I will follow up with you soon. Thank you!”
“Did you have detention?” I asked, when I picked him up from school.
“No, the teacher spoke to me and said she didn’t know all the information and I will not have detention.” He was cool, calm, and collected. We high-fived in celebration.
This incident reveals so many layers of why Parenting for Liberation is vitally important. When my fear of the school-to-prison pipeline grabbed ahold of me, I realized that my fear was being instilled in my son. In that moment, I realized I needed to shift to being oriented towards liberation. Honing on the energy of folks in the Black Lives Matter movement who fight to affirm Black people’s lives and rights to human dignity, I pushed myself to affirm my son’s rights. Here are some questions I asked myself (and invite you to reflect on when you sense yourself parenting from a place of fear):
- Where does this fear stem from? (Honor your fear; do not deny it. Then get curious about your fear.)
- What can I do to push past my fear in this moment? What would it mean to be a liberated parent?
- What can I do in this moment to empower my child to push past their fears? (Model for your child as a source of inspiration)
- How do I engage and educate my child in the resolution? (Children have voice and insight, involve them in this process)
- How do I educate my child’s teacher about the impacts of such harsh disciplinary actions? What are the clear recommendations and/or requests I can suggest as alternatives to punitive actions? (Teachers are at times overwhelmed and don’t have all the information, thus have resources and recommendations on hand)
As parents, we must realize that our own fears limit us from parenting from a place of liberation. For more opportunities to reflect on liberated parenting strategies as used in this incident, check out Parenting for Liberation’s Story Workbook.
Trina Greene Brown has worked in violence prevention for the past 15 years, managing multiple local and national initiatives. She launched Parenting for Liberation as a space for parents of Black children to envision a world where our children are cultivated to be their most liberated selves. Before creating Parenting for Liberation, Trina engaged leaders within the violence against women’s movement to build an inclusive gender and racial justice movement via her role as Outreach and Engagement Manager at Move to End Violence, a ten-year initiative of the NoVo Foundation. She also served as a Director for the YMCA, incorporating violence prevention education focusing on resiliency in the Department of Youth Development. Formerly a Manager at Peace Over Violence, a social service agency dedicated to the elimination of sexual and domestic violence and all forms of interpersonal violence, Trina co-authored a female empowerment curriculum, Be Strong: From The Inside Out, and contributed to the second revision of In Touch With Teens, a nationally recognized relationship violence prevention curriculum. She is the proud co-parent of two African American children, whom she raises with her husband in California to reach for the stars.