Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Suspended Animation: A Legal Perspective of School Discipline and African American Learners in the Shadows of Brown

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Suspended Animation: A Legal Perspective of School Discipline and African American Learners in the Shadows of Brown

Article excerpt

On a humid Saturday in a southeastern metropolitan city, I circled our airport's loading area several times until I spotted my colleague, Dr. Gwendolyn Webb-Hasan. She had flown in for a short visit. We exited the airport and headed toward the nearby ''Global Shopping Mall" for some well-deserved, relaxing activities-catching up over lunch and leisurely shopping for shoes. Or so we thought. Just as we prepared to turn into the mall parking lot, my once pleasant cell phone's ring tone not only interrupted, but also reversed, our long-awaited plans. I sighed while pushing the speaker button. On the other end was "Braxton," a 15-year-old African American male who I knew quite well. He frantically pleaded with me to come to his house right away. I had been assisting his siblings and him while his mother was hospitalized. Of course, I asked him about the urgency. Evidently, a group of boys was circling his house with chains, sticks, and bats. Braxton anxiously said they were yelling and threatening that they were not leaving-until he came outside. They accused him of stealing from one of them.

Braxton, who is usually pretty unflappable, was clearly alarmed. When I made that U-turn, little did I know that we would alter much more than our afternoon plans. Dr. Webb-Hasan and I reached Braxton's house only to be met by the glares of eight or nine African American male teens clustered in the driveway and front yard; some were on bicycles and others were on foot. Scanning their faces one by one, she and I emerged slowly from the comfort of the car. Remarkably, each one looked angrier and more menacing than their confederates. Quickly relying on our instincts, we smiled and walked over to the young man looking to be the most agitated and in charge. After introducing ourselves, we asked their names and began shaking hands with "Carsyn," the leader, and his friends. We told them that while I knew Braxton well, we wanted to hear their sides to resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner. After listening to the teens' suspicions about Braxton stealing from one of them, we discussed several alternatives to violent ways to resolve conflicts. Since the young men appeared to be listening rather intently, we continued describing ways to talk out problems and gave examples using real-life and personal experiences. We also solicited suggestions from them. Our front yard conversations were peppered with humor, which helped us establish rapport and an ethic of care, despite having never met them before. We also talked about good character and what makes an effective leader. For example, we shared our admiration for real leaders who can step up and move people toward conflict resolution without resorting to their fists or weapons. Clearly on a roll, we engaged them in dialogue about how it takes a big person to know when and how to recognize and apologize for misunderstandings.

Much to our surprise, Carsyn asked me to go in the house and bring Braxton outside. He said that he would be the big man and take the lead to talk with Braxton and try to resolve the situation. Carsyn assured us that there would be no fighting. I went in and relayed to Braxton what Carsyn wanted to do. Skeptical at first, Braxton reluctantly ventured outside. Carsyn honored his word and initiated the most wonderful and productive exchange among Braxton, the other young men, and himself. It was exciting to watch him extend his right hand to Braxton and apologize for what apparently was a misunderstanding. Watching the other teens follow Carsyn's lead was equally rewarding.

We learned of those young men's back-stories after that incident. Like Braxton, they were adolescents from families with low incomes. Despite being school-aged, they were no longer enrolled in or going to school. Simply put, each one dropped out of middle school and never enrolled in or went to high school. Interestingly, since they were never high school students, were they counted as high school dropouts, if they never dropped in? …

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