Opinion | A cry for community: Implicit bias in discipline

Amira Grace, Guest Writer

When I first decided I wanted to write this article, I was enraged and dumbfounded at the apathy of ETHS administration. Through a GroupMe chat for the ETHS Student Union, Mayra Bazan-Gonzalez, an ETHS student of color, reported being suspended from school, put on social probation and threatened with expulsion for bringing pepper spray into a school football game. Later that week, while discussing the event, I received a statement, among many other anecdotes, from a white senior who brought pepper spray into a football game this year, where it was thrown away by a safety officer, and the student spent the night enjoying the game. This, in tandem with the racially motivated stories I’d heard about safety in previous years, seemed to me that safety officers were targeting students of color. Through a CRT (Critical Race Theory) lens, that may be the case, but implicit bias is almost an unsolvable issue. However, what I’ve noticed through interviews and interactions with the students and staff, is that the major issue is a lack of empathy and understanding by faculty when enforcing rules in the Pilot.

In regards the 2022-2023 ETHS Pilot, punishment for bringing pepper spray onto the campus ranges from “restorative action” and “extended detention” to “expulsion for up to two calendar years”, a policy that, if enforced correctly, makes sense considering the student’s intention when bringing pepper spray to school. However, it’s not being enforced that way. As Associate Principal Dr. Keith Robinson so profoundly outlined for me, there’s an appeal process students can go through when they feel they’ve been wrongly punished, but from the moment the incident occurs to the moment punishment is established, students should not be treated as criminals. A crime doesn’t make a criminal. Not wearing a seatbelt is a crime, but an unknowing child in the backseat of their parent’s car, discomforted by the texture of the seatbelt enough to take it off, is not a criminal. An unknowing student putting pepper spray in their bag in the case they’re attacked on their walk home in the night is not a criminal, and so, they shouldn’t be treated as such. So, whether or not there is an appeal process, the worries students have are not addressed or ameliorated in that process. Luckily, the outcome of Bazan-Gonzalez’s process was one she could understand and digest, but, as she outlines,“that was after many appeals… that was after a very traumatic process… that was after feeling like a criminal.” 

After a discussion in a recent ETHS Student Union meeting, many of the unknowing and innocent students being reprimanded and sent to the dean’s office are being sent by newer or unfamiliar officers. Whether it’s their lack of communication with students or stricter enforcement of rules after last year’s lockdown, new safety officers are cold and distant—maintaining stone faces, crossed arms and militant gazes. Students feel threatened and I do, too. But I can’t entirely blame security officers. Administration plays a large role in how safety officers conduct themselves and the punishments students receive. Not only must safety officers follow orders and rules put in place by administration, but they conduct their behavior based off of that of administrators, so if administrators lack empathy in their interaction with students, so will safety officers. 

That being said, this improper conduct is not applicable to all administrative figures. Like Dr Campbell says in reference to professional development,”[Assistant Superintendent and Principal] Dr. Kinzie and I… have lots of all staff meetings, where we go through training. We have lots of discussions on how to have a conversation about race. What are the unintended consequences about  the disproportionality that we see in disciplining, [and that] we see in achievement.” Many administrators are aware and sympathetic of the disproportionate enforcement of rules; however, certain disciplinary administrators exemplify the improper and rash conduct observed in some new safety officers. 

Unlike Bazan-Gonzalez’s case, many students don’t have excelling grades and extracurricular involvement to support themselves during an pepper spray appeal process, so the safest option, for them, may be to take the initial resolution to their case, leaving them with an unfairly enforced punishment, just in an attempt to feel secure. 

As an ETHS senior, I can openly recognize poor student behavior. Students vape in the bathroom, vandalize ETHS property, are sexually assaulted in unsupervised areas, have stored drugs in ETHS ceilings and have stolen school property. These are all undeniable realities. However, just as students are imperfect, so is faculty and the only way to prevent these traumatic punishments from occurring is through establishing an empathetic protocol for safety officers to follow when they find a student with pepper spray. The Pilot and the law cannot be changed, but how administration addresses individual cases is something students, teachers and safety officers can change by bringing this issue to the attention of administrators, especially those seemingly unaware of their colleagues’ destructive behavior.