The first CREAD Commandment states: Know your students. The importance of this principle cannot be overstated but perhaps it deserves clarification and elaboration. Fania Davis, Executive Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) reminds us of the Zulu greeting: “Sawubona” meaning, “I see you”. As culturally responsive educators, knowledge of our students requires us to have the ability to see our students beyond their exterior.
On September 24, 2016, Dr. Davis was joined by Dr. Monique Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools and Ashley Ellis, Restorative Justice Coordinator for Good Shepard Services, in an important dialogue about school discipline entitled, “Children, Not Criminals: Rethinking School Discipline” hosted by the Brooklyn Museum. In their discussion moderated by Cecilia Clarke, President of Brooklyn Community Foundation, they outlined the impact of exclusionary discipline policies on girls and boys of color and black girls in particular. They also discussed the importance of restorative justice in public education as more black and brown students are subjected to increased surveillance and school confinement.
The panel presented very troubling statistics of the racial and gender disparities that exist in school discipline data nationally. More importantly they all emphasized the importance of building trust, ensuring that students experience a feeling of connectedness and belonging and developing strong school communities, where asking the question, “are you okay?” becomes the norm.
As culturally responsive educators we have a vital role in creating and maintaining schools as spaces where black and brown bodies feel safe and are not subjected to the automatic assignment of culpability and blame. We must expand the principle of knowing our students to mean that we wish to see them as they are, in all their complexity and beauty. We must also urge our colleagues, who we witness jumping to racialized conclusions about our students, to “try something else” and seek trauma-informed responses and options when engaging in discipline.
Our collective work as practitioners requires that we raise our awareness and understanding of restorative justice and its principles. Moreover, we should engage and initiate dialogue about institutional racism, white supremacy and the trauma our students experience as a result and its impact on their educational experience and social functioning. We can also seek opportunities to support our youth in their raising awareness and activism to combat these unjust discipline practices. Building our own competencies means we can truly see our students and they can respond to “Sawubona” with “Ngikhona” meaning “I am here”.
Deep thinkers only