Robin knows that students cannot receive the education they deserve until the school-to-prison pipeline is dismantled.
As long as schools continue to enforce punitive discipline policies, schools will never provide equitable learning environments for all our students. Robin McNair, a veteran educator in Prince George’s County, Maryland, has dedicated much of her career to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, in which children—mostly low-income and children of color—are funneled out of public schools for even minor infractions and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems through harsh “zero tolerance” discipline policies.
McNair knows that students cannot receive the education they deserve under such a punitive system.
In 2014, frustrated with her own district’s discipline policies, McNair led an effort to persuade the district to incorporate restorative practices into its Student Behavior Handbook and host restorative practices professional development training for educators.
“We must always remember that when a student acts out, there is an underlying issue that we should address,” she says. “We have to get to the ‘why.’”We must always remember that when a student acts out, there is an underlying issue that we should address. We have to get to the 'why.' Tweet this
Now the restorative practices coordinator for Prince George’s County, McNair is a recognized expert in the effectiveness of restorative justice in schools. Although she is encouraged by the shifting conversation around student discipline – after proliferating for more than a decade, zero tolerance and the racial disparities in perpetuates is facing a backlash – McNair isn’t taking her eye off the ball. It’s not enough, she says, for a district to take steps away from punitive discipline. They have to do it right.
“There has been progress, but what I’m seeing as school systems take up the fight, many tend to push out programs and initiatives that are rushed and don’t take the time to properly explore where the needs are and what the needs are. We have to be deliberate and intentional in our work, regardless how long it may take.”
“We need to acknowledge the realities our students face, all voices need to be at the table,” she adds. “We have to create a space for students to share their stories.”
Fear, as always, is a stubborn obstacle. When you talk about new approaches to discipline, many are not sure of what comes next. Much of this fear comes from not really knowing students’ stories, McNair says, but people are also fearful of engaging in an honest, constructive conversation about institutional racism.
The implicit bias and racism that fuels zero tolerance and the school-to-prison pipeline has always been there, but the divisive, often toxic political rhetoric of the past few years has polluted the climate even more. “Biases are being perpetuated through the media, through society, through our current administration. It’s making it harder for us to honestly confront our biases and take ownership of them,” McNair says.
“We need to work together to talk about these biases and learn where they come from. And be able to check them before they have a chance to surface. Then maybe we can talk more honestly about racism, equity and social justice and how it affects our students.”