Punished in School Then Sentenced to Prison

How and why teachers punish students can have life-long consequences, especially for Black children. Explore the “discipline gap” through the eyes of a teacher and student who experienced it firsthand.

  • October 21, 2019
  • |
  • Messenger
  • |
  • By David Haldeman

Messenger is a series where two experts with complementary focus areas explore a topic through an online chat.

Daudi Abe’s Speakers Bureau talk title asks, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Principal’s Office?” Abe, a professor and author, studies the “discipline gap” in which Black students receive much higher rates of punishment in school than their White counterparts. In Seattle Public Schools alone, Black middle school students are three-and-a-half times as likely to be disciplined as other students.

Omari Amili experienced this gap firsthand. After a difficult public school experience, he served prison time. But he turned his life around by taking college classes, and now speaks about what he calls the “prison-to-college” pipeline in his talk, “From Crime to the Classroom: How Education Changes Lives.

Together, Abe and Amili explore how schools get discipline wrong, where that failure can lead, and how college can provide a new start for those incarcerated.

The conversation was moderated by Humanities Washington editor David Haldeman, and edited for length and clarity.

David: So why don’t we start with Daudi. I’m curious about how you came to the subject of the discipline gap. Was it your experience as a teacher? Did you experience examples firsthand?

Daudi: I majored in Econ as an undergrad and literally fell into teaching a third/fourth grade combo class at Zion Preparatory Academy in the early 1990s. Zion was a predominantly African-American preschool-eighth grade private Christian school, first in the Central District, then in the south end. There were great students at Zion, but the open enrollment also meant we would take on more nontraditional students who struggled in other schools and districts.

It was there that I first learned, at least intuitively, about different kinds of discipline, specifically objective versus subjective forms of discipline. It wasn’t until I wrote my dissertation in 2003-2004 that I was able to attach this language to it. Objective includes things like fighting, or weapon or drug possession—things that do not leave much to interpretation. But subjective discipline includes things like “disruptive conduct,” “rule breaking,” and “defiance.” These forms accounted for over 50% of the reasons given by teachers in Seattle schools for the suspensions and expulsions of African American middle school students.

David: What prompts a teacher to say, “that’s disruptive” and punish accordingly?

Daudi: At Zion I saw firsthand that what constitutes “disruptive conduct” in one classroom is actually considered excited, invested learning in another classroom, depending on the teacher. Teachers go to this in situations of cultural distance between teacher and student.

David: Is this predominately an issue with White teachers misinterpreting behavior? Would more teachers of color help close the gap, or is there something more?

Daudi: Yes and no. Another thing Zion taught me was that being a person of color is not an automatic qualification to be good with diverse classrooms, and vice versa. There are plenty of White teachers who are great with multiracial classrooms. In my view the issue lies in the training, which is why I’m involved in the Academy for Rising Educators, which is a partnership between Seattle Central College and Seattle Public Schools to develop homegrown teaching candidates who center culturally responsive teaching and relationship-based pedagogy in everything they do. First cohort of about 30 starts in September.

A teacher wouldn’t have to explicitly tell Omari or myself that they don’t think we are smart or we don’t belong in college. Those implicit messages are sent in classrooms every single day, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

David: Omari, I’d like to ask about your story shortly, but first I’m curious if any of this resonates with your experience in school. You’ve said that you struggled in school when you were younger. Would the way teachers approached discipline have made a difference?

Omari: It does resonate with my experiences in school. Especially the objective versus subjective discussion. I was always in trouble for “disruptive behavior.” Things like answering a question without raising my hand, getting up out of my seat, and various other behaviors that were rooted in my life experiences and circumstances both in and out of school. Unfortunately, once I got a target on my back and my teachers began to view me through what I believe is a negative lens, all of a sudden I’m constantly getting removed from class or even suspended for behaviors that I watch my peers display on the regular. Things like having someone ask me a question, and when I answer, I’m asked to leave.

I feel like if they recognized that discipline means to teach and not to punish then we all would have been better off. Unfortunately, the system they have to operate within is flawed and it was not built for kids like me. Not my skin color, not from my background, not with the issues that I came along with. They were not properly equipped.

Daudi: That is amazing Omari. I gave this talk up at the Monroe Correctional Complex a few years back, and afterward about a dozen cats from the Black Prisoners Caucus got at me, talking about how their path to being locked down began exactly with those types of subjective disciplinary issues in school.

Omari: Yeah I don’t feel like it’s uncommon at all. We are taught from an early age that we are not like everyone else and don’t belong with everyone else. “We” being kids who end up under far more scrutiny than their classmates.

Daudi: Indeed. I mean look, when I did my study it was on middle school kids. In the time since, we have research saying Black preschoolers are being disproportionately suspended and expelled. I was doing a parent night a year or two ago, and had a Black mother tell me her preschool daughter was suspended from preschool. For what? Wait for it: for not taking a nap. Swear to god. This leads to what a number of the Black Prisoners Caucus guys at Monroe identified with—the concept of “academic self-esteem.” How students view themselves as learners. “Am I smart?” “Am I college material?” That kind of academic trauma—and that’s what it is, trauma—combined with the messages sent by consistent subjective disciplinary events eat away at academic self-esteem. A teacher wouldn’t have to explicitly tell Omari or myself that they don’t think we are smart or we don’t belong in college. Those implicit messages are sent in classrooms every single day, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

David: Omari, could you give us the overview of your story? What led to your incarceration and how did you become passionate about education? And do you believe that a different educational approach in middle/high school might have helped you avoid prison, or was it just one of a number of factors?

Omari: I came from a background that included drug addiction on my parents’ part, chronic instability, homelessness, poverty, foster care, all kinds of trauma, and a lack of positive influences. My family was in survival mode constantly. My values were shaped by all negative influences. I began skipping school around fourth grade, was first expelled from Seattle Public Schools in the sixth grade, dropped out of school permanently around the age of 16. I was incarcerated for a bank fraud scheme that I was involved with between the ages of like 17 and 20. I made hundreds of thousands of dollars and thought I had finally made it, but eventually it caught up to me and I ended up pleading guilty as charged to 30 felonies.

I became passionate about pursuing an education to climb out of my situation of being real young with a lot of felonies and nothing that makes me attractive to an employer. When I got out of prison I put my GED to use, enrolled in college, and now I have four degrees despite not having that experience of walking across the stage and graduating from high school. It was my personal success in education and the resulting growth that sparked the desire to help other people see similar possibilities for themselves.

Based on my circumstances and the chronic instability, the fact that I attended over 15 schools and got expelled and forced into alternative schools means there was no different approach on my part. The different approach should have been on the part of the public school system, the teachers, the administrators. I should have never been expelled. When I dropped out in the sixth grade someone should have come looking to re-engage me and not just with threats of the Becca Bill (Washington State’s truancy law).

There is nothing a pre-school should be able to do to be suspended. That is so silly.

Yes, it was drilled into me that education was not for me at a young age by my experiences in the K-12 system.

David: Daudi, when you say messages of inadequacy are sent by teachers “sometimes intentionally, and sometimes not,” it brings the question: What accounts for the gap? Is it racism, overt or subtle? Ignorance of cultural approaches? Something else?

Daudi: I think Omari speaks to a tough reality that exists within these gatekeeper professions like teaching and law enforcement. I do work with both teachers and police officers, and I think there are numerous similarities between the professions. But to both David’s point and Omari’s experience in professions like these, which have historically problematic outcomes for low income populations and students of color, that history must be taken into account when entering the field in my opinion. So for example, having your first meaningful interactions with the populations you are serving after you have already started the job is being set up to fail. That shit needs to be built into the training from jump street. Sorry. For the curse, not the point…

Omari: Historically we have not been taken into account because this system was designed with our exclusion in mind. This system opened up to us with Brown vs. Board of Education and it was not re-modeled or adapted to meet our needs.

David: Omari, what happened in prison that made you pursue education? Was it a person convincing you? Was it a revelation? What made the change?

Omari: Nothing. Prison had nothing to do with me pursuing education and only delayed it.

David: You were out of prison when you pursued?

Omari: It was a personal decision based on needing to do something with my life. I didn’t start my education until I was out and had trouble finding a job I actually would have wanted. Today there are a lot of programs and people in place to help but I had to be self-driven. There were no re-entry navigators on college campuses or anything when I got out.

David: Given your previous experience feeling rejected by the educational system, were you nervous about returning? What did the school do that helped you embrace education after feeling rejected by it?

Omari: I was released June 2008. I wasn’t really nervous but I didn’t feel like I belonged. I started out filling gaps from my childhood with math, learning things like the order of operations in math classes that were not for college credit. It took a long time to climb up to college level math. I felt like an impostor. I felt like my felonies were a major barrier and my options were super limited. The school honestly didn’t help me at all, I never tapped into any resources or services. They provided an opportunity to grow and I took advantage of it. Being a student helped, being in school helped, but it was really self-driven.

To ask a question from Daudi related to this, what are strategies to get more incarcerated people, and those newly-released, to pursue education?

Daudi: I think what Omari said was so on point. “I felt like an impostor. I felt like my felonies were a major barrier and my options were super limited.” Probably one of the keys is getting people to believe they can actually do it, which they can. They’ve just been led to believe otherwise over a lifetime of darts being thrown at their academic self-esteem. Then when the student begins to withdraw, now the kid/family don’t care about their education. It’s wicked yo. I should say the perception by the teacher/staff is that the kid and their family don’t care about education.

Omari: I believe that the key is introducing the possibility. Once they know it’s possible, and they know there is funding and there are people and organizations out there like the re-entry navigators, if it’s something they want to do then they will. They need to have their lives in order to succeed though which is the hard part. You need housing, transportation, a lot of people need treatment for mental health or addictions. I feel like my job is to change the narrative and introduce new possibilities, and Humanities Washington has been an outlet for me to do just that inside of jails and prisons. You can send someone they can’t relate to inside to share the same message but the messenger really matters. If they can see parts of themselves in my story and the stories of others similar to me, many of which have gotten out of prison and become attorneys, or scientists, or college professors, then they might recognize education as a path out of poverty and a life of crime.

Daudi and Omari are presenting their free Speakers Bureau talks around the state. Find an event here.