How The South King County Discipline Coalition Responds to Disproportionate Treatment

by Kayla Blau

If your child has ever been disproportionately disciplined, the South King County Discipline Coalition (SKCDC) is here for you. The coalition is comprised of community members and organizations that believe discipline disproportionality and the school-to-prison pipeline are unacceptable.

In Seattle Public Schools, African-American middle school students are three-and-a-half times as likely to be disciplined as other students. The rates are even higher if your student is in Special Education or has disabilities. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education even opened a federal investigation of these disproportionate disciplinary practices.

The coalition is “committed to being led by and accountable to impacted community, and centering voices of youth and parents in our decision-making,” and while many organizations claim the same, the SKCDC walks their talk. I had the opportunity to speak with some members of their advisory committee, almost all of whom are mothers with first-hand experience with disproportionate discipline.

In 2015, One America received a grant from the Open Society Foundation and partnered with TeamChild, which hired Reyna Rollolazo to coordinate the coalition.

The coalition hosts Know Your Rights trainings and workshops, builds leadership and parent capacity, and leverages the coalition to support community-led work. They host Know Your Power trainings facilitated by Diane Beall as well. The coalition also hosted Dr. Debra Ren-Etta Sullivan to speak on “Cultivating the Genius of Black Children” and cultural learning styles. The heart of the coalition’s work is community accountability and being tailored to family needs.

Here’s what some of the coalition’s advisory committee have to say about their important work.

Reyna Rollolazo was the initial coalition coordinator. Here’s her thoughts about the coalition’s work.

I started doing outreach to build the coalition and met with Emijah Smith, who immediately started asking the important questions: how is this community-driven? Does the coalition have an anti-racism lens?

From there, the coalition shifted away from status quo organizational structure towards being community led. Emijah [Smith] urged me to attend an Undoing Institutional Racism training. The original plan was to approach policy changes in a status quo way, which is often led by people disconnected from the issues whose identities are outside of the communities directly impacted. We started to ask ourselves: can we do this differently and how?

We engaged with the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) around the new school discipline regulations and hosted listening sessions to influence the discipline rules. We cultivated tactical shifts in power, like inviting OSPI into our meeting space in White Center. Institutions need to be coming to the community; it’s not feasible for parents to travel to Olympia to be heard.

We’re working to build leadership capacity for self-advocacy, and now we’re doing that internally as well. We have established a fiscal sponsorship and are working on learning how to be self-reliant and sustainable while being accountable to the community. Like with the sub-grants, originally we were told applicants had to have 501c3 status to apply to the grants, which usually restricts community members from applying. But we found a way around that; it wasn’t easy, but being values-driven in all we do is key. I have so much respect and admiration for the women I’ve worked with through the coalition. They have so much conviction and myriad talents, skills, and experiences. They’ve really taught me what it means to be a dedicated parent and advocate and stay true to your values.

Emijah Smith, who defines herself as a mother first who taps into multiple organizing opportunities for access to quality education for African-American kids, also is on the steering committee. Here’s what she has to say about the coalition:

My passion for educational equity and criminal justice reform is witnessing my kids, specifically my sons, go through it. I would go up to the schools and be treated like I was ignorant or helpless when I have a graduate degree and have been working in educational advocacy for years. … But I know whatever disrespect or feelings of being unwelcome I was getting from the school environment, my son was getting it worse every single day.

Back in 2012 I was part of convening African-American Family Gatherings in Seattle to address educational inequalities, which became a network of parents and families. We saw a lot of funding go to organizations that have no relationships with the black community but were claiming to “fix issues within the black community.”

[With the South Seattle Discipline Coalition], I see us as a network of education advocates, and I came to the coalition as a concerned parent. Maritess Gamez, another founding parent in the coalition, holds a Master’s in Education with a focus in Special Education, and was able to bring a teacher’s perspective to the coalition as well as personal experience. Maritess’ input has been so valuable to the coalition’s work moving forward.

It takes slowing down and truly valuing relationships to be community-centered. And we hold our funders to that standard too — we’ve brought funders and sub-grant recipients together to break down those silos so funders can no longer say that don’t know anyone organizing within the black community; we’re right here.

Teachers should look like the kids they’re serving, and school environments should be rooted in Undoing Institutional Racism values. Discipline is necessary, but it doesn’t have to be punitive; kids aren’t dolls that just sit still and don’t talk all day. Teachers should be held accountable when they bully or discriminate against kids, and they should understand intersectional oppression and youth brain development.

Teachers need support too. Are they being offered professional development and support from their school? Most teachers go right into urban schools from college even if they’ve never worked with black and brown kids or even had a person of color at their dinner table before. Teachers need to assess their own filters.

For families going through it, I would tell them to speak up. Show your kids you’re fighting for them, you love them, and that you got their back. As parents we’re afraid of retaliation [from the school if we speak up], but it’s important to let your kids know you’re there for them. We can’t let school break our kids, and [unfair discipline] can be extremely damaging. Work to restore your child’s joy, self-esteem, and self-concept.

Our job is to be an expert in our kids and cultivate joy and the possibility of joy. Let your kids know they are not helpless. Families will be victorious. Know your rights, learn to advocate, teach your kids how to advocate for themselves, find an advocacy group or support system, and just advocate. I understand the fear of speaking up, but demand respect and get free. For yourself, and for your kids.

Halisi Ali El, by day aka Halisi Tha Wizdom Wordsmith, does community relations for the coalition. Here’s her take on the coalition’s work.

Our goal is to empower families so they can protect themselves. A lot of families are vulnerable to institutions; they’re already unpacking traumas and multiple isms and need support through that. Schools need to respond in culturally specific ways. But rights are violated at school all the time, and parents have to know how to respond to those violations. They’re the accountability factor. That teaches kids how to communicate too, and that’s what it comes down to. We got to start modeling and teaching kids how to communicate instead of hurting them through harsh punishments.

I know it can be overwhelming, so I accompany parents to school meetings if they need support. I let them know their rights and freedoms, raise awareness, and try to be a voice of information. I’m also taking on a consultant capacity through visiting other district’s support meetings and share information.

Morning check-ins can change a lot. But teachers have to participate too. When teachers share and are vulnerable about their feelings, they become more relatable and build trust with the kids. Kids are looking for vocabulary of how to express themselves, and when they don’t have it they’ll misbehave.

Teachers have to model social/emotional skills. How can we expect kids to be regulated when the teachers are all wound up? Schools have to get back to humanity, to be more humane. Teachers are human too, and we all need support.

It’s my hope that we can branch out and build partnerships with other districts and share tools for people to put into practice in their own communities. It would be amazing if every district had their own version of the discipline coalition.

Shareese Rhodes comes to the coalition through her own experiences with navigating the school-to-prison pipeline. Here’s what she has to say about the coalition.

I got involved because I want to be that parent that I didn’t have when my son was receiving harsh discipline. When he was going through it, I’d go to discipline meetings and just trust what the system was telling me. When he was handcuffed and expelled at 6 years old, I didn’t know what his rights were. I didn’t understand why some procedures weren’t transparent.

As his discipline got harsher, I realized certain parents and kids were given more access to support or special programs. It felt like I needed to know a secret handshake to get additional support. I tried to gather all the information I had to inquire about more support for him and was disregarded at every turn. Eventually I realized the kids that were getting more support and programming were white.

From there I started going to more advocacy meetings and met Reyna, which led me to the coalition. It felt so good to finally be in a room with people who got it, where I didn’t have to be apologetic about my anger or frustration about the way my son was being treated. It felt good to know I wasn’t the only one.

I helped facilitate a parent training and was asked to take on a leadership role. At first I didn’t see myself as a leader — I thought leaders would have all their ducks in a row and wouldn’t have all these stresses. But then I recognized I’m a better ally and leader because I’ve been through the trenches and am still going through them. I’m teaching and learning along with them.

The new OSPI rules call for parent involvement in disaggregating the discipline data, but what parents are participating? I want parents that look like the kids that are being disproportionately disciplined to participate, the ones that are being impacted.

Teachers need to be reminded of their bias and be required to do something about it. When my daughter was in kindergarten and first grade, her teachers were people of color and she was praised for asking questions. She got awards for being inquisitive. Now she has a white teacher and gets in trouble for asking questions; she’s told it’s a distraction. She doesn’t really talk anymore in class, and I don’t want her to feel like a bad kid. We learn by asking questions, and there’s a cultural disconnect here.

Some kids go without breakfast and don’t have routines, other kids might’ve watched their mom get beat up before coming to school. Teachers have to take into account what families are dealing with. Children need empathy, support, and they need to really be seen. They need teachers to really care about what happens to them and a safe space to share their narrative.

A lot of times the behavior is an after-effect or response to another incident in the classroom. We often don’t even know our kids in trouble until they’re ready to suspend them, so we have to communicate with our kids. Talk to your kid every day about what happened at school and how they were treated. I ask my kid about how her teachers are treating other kids too. We have to stay in the loop.

I want parents to know their rights, and to remember your child’s worth. It’s really hard to be in rooms where all these people are only telling you negative things about your kid. It’s hard for your child to hear that too. You can ask to hear positive things. Also, don’t go through it alone; have a support person there with you at the meetings that has vested interested and sees the potential in your child.

Get everything in writing. If you forget, write them an email after the meeting outlining everything they promised so you’ll have documentation. You have rights, and if you don’t know your rights, the South King County Discipline Coalition is a resource for you. Even if your child isn’t going through it right now, come through a meeting and learn your rights so you’re ready if it happens.

Mahogany Montgomery, the coalition’s current coordinator, shares her thoughts about the coalition.

We’re planting seeds for other parent coalitions and learning to use laws to empower ourselves. It also models to our kids that they can stand up and advocate for themselves, too. We’ll always be community-based, like one of the parents in our coalition is hosting a training about Special Education advocacy, because who knows it better than someone who’s been through it?

The South King County Discipline Coalition is a vital resource for parents and community members impacted by disproportionate discipline. Their work is an inspiration and proof that community members can affect the change they want to see in the world.

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Featured Image: Emijah Smith at SKCDC’s Surviving the School Year event. (Courtesy SKCDC)

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