As a young child growing up in northwest Detroit, Dr. Charles Bell rode his bike past Wayne State University on his way to school. But as far as he was concerned, the institution may as well have been on a remote island.

It’s not that Bell, an assistant professor of criminal justice sciences at Illinois State University, didn’t have dreams of attending college. It was just that school where he grew up was more a matter of survival than about education.

As American children go through school and develop their interests, they often hear a well-intentioned axiom that they can do whatever to which they put their mind. Through their research, Assistant Professors of Elementary Education Dr. Shamaine Bertrand and Dr. Erin Quast; Assistant Psychology Professor Dr. Brea Banks ’10, Ph.D. ’15; and Bell have shown that there is a chasm between the American dream and American reality. Between a lack of resources, harmful punishments, and growing up in a culture of microaggressions, students of color and those coming from low-income areas have vastly different educational experiences than their counterparts in wealthier, less diverse school districts. Their former group’s paths to “whatever they want to be” contain far more twists and turns, oftentimes with insurmountable obstacles.

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“We’re handicapping kids living in those kinds of circumstances where school is the only way out,” said Bell. 

Some students, depending on where they come from, face the consequences of educational inequities the moment they walk in the door for their first day of kindergarten. Bertrand and Quast study access to resourses in low-income school districts, while their teaching revolves around preparing culturally responsive educators.  

The two co-authored the article “Exploring Economic Diversity and Inequity Through Picture Books,” published in 2019 by the International Literacy Association, to show how children of color and students with families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds rarely have their cultural experiences reflected in school curriculums. They noted a 2018 study showing that 44 percent of children under 9 years old are from low-income families, with 21 percent living below the poverty line. 

“We know that students who don’t experience a good school climate don’t perform as well academically.”

Dr. Brea Banks

Bertrand and Quast began the Equity and Diversity Cohort with Decatur Public Schools in fall 2018. Their goal was to expose Redbird teaching candidates who went to mostly suburban high schools to a mid-size urban and ethnically diverse educational setting where they would learn to effectively serve children from lower-income and working-class neighborhoods. One student, who was white and from a northwest Chicago suburb, noted how there was a lack of basic supplies in the classroom. When she asked students to grab their highlighters for an assignment, none of them had one. 

“When there’s not enough resources, you’re not able to provide enough for a quality education for students,” Bertrand said.

In their article, Bertrand and Quast explored the need for depicting nonstereotypical images of people living in poverty. The professors observed one school where 80 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch. The researchers noted how conversations about economic inequality remain largely silent, especially in relation to topics such as rising inflation, limited access to quality health care and education, an imbalance of political power, and systemic racism. 

Poverty, the researchers said, is often framed in class through events such as the Dust Bowl, not so much the development of luxury living areas that drive the rent up too high for local business. They also observed how curriculums present the middle-class lifestyle to look like a white family in a two-parent household. 

Picture-books can offer counternarratives to harmful stereotypes and the researchers encourage teachers to use them in class to get students to talk about economic inequality.

“Research shows colorblind and one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching do not work and are part of inequitable systems,” Quast said. 

Banks, whose research specializes in microaggressions among secondary- and college-aged individuals, presented a 2014 study in Washington, D.C., with Dr. Steven Landau that showed how 84 percent of teachers in the U.S. were white at the time of the 2010 census. The presentation, “The Impact of Microaggressions and Stereotype Threat in Schools,” stated how such discrepancies can allow for school professionals to “inadvertently communicate hostile and racially charged slurs that can have negative effects on children’s academic performance and how they feel about themselves.” An example would be how a math teacher might call on a Black female to answer only easy questions in class.

“We know that students who don’t experience a good school climate don’t perform as well academically,” Banks said.

Banks’ most recent publication, “It Offends Us Too! An Exploratory Analysis of High School-Based Microaggressions,” was published last August in Contemporary School Psychology. For the study, she sent a survey to a Midwestern high school of approximately 1,300 students—with 65 percent of that district having a Black student population—asking about their experiences with school peers and personnel and to which degree they found microaggressions offensive. Just under 400 students took the survey.

There were two different presentations for Banks’ study. The first asked students to use a scale to rate how often they hear questions or statements such as “Can I touch your hair?” and “You are so articulate.” The second asked students to rate similar statements based on how offensive they found the language.  

The study confirmed that microaggressions are problematic for adolescents. The survey results indicated students holding marginalized racial, ethnic, and sexual identities experience this behavior and are more likely to notice. 

Banks said microaggressions can result from a lack of representation, and that can make children who don’t come from the background of the microaggresor (e.g., school personnel) feel inferior. Her study showed that students of color were “more likely to report witnessing adults at school use microaggressive language toward their peers” than their white counterparts. 

“What that teaches folks who don’t identify as white, particularly Black kids, is that your voice and what happened to you doesn’t matter,” Banks said. “It becomes frustrating when your school experience differs from your white counterparts because school personnel and peers hold stereotypical views of Blackness and view you as inferior.”

When students become frustrated and don’t feel they are valued or listened to, they may be more likely to act out or withdraw. Bell has studied school discipline and suspensions among urban districts for years. He thinks the lack of cultural awareness among school personnel, inadequate resources, and microaggressions all play a role in why Black students are punished at a higher rate than others. 

In his study “‘Maybe If They Let Us Tell The Story I wouldn’t Have Gotten Suspended’: Understanding Black Students’ and Parents’ Perceptions of School Discipline,” Bell interviewed more than 30 Detroit area students who had been suspended, as well as 30 parents of suspended students. His findings showed Black students felt targeted for suspension. 

Bell pointed out how the Detroit Public Schools Community District had about 46,000 students at the time he conducted his study in 2016-2017 as a doctoral student at, of all places, Wayne State. He found that there were approximately 12,000 school suspensions, meaning the district issued on average one suspension for every four students. Ninety-two percent of students receiving out-of-school suspensions were Black. Furthermore, nationwide, Black students represented 31 percent of all law enforcement referrals and arrests during the 2015-2016 academic year despite only representing 15 percent of the school population.

In Michigan and Illinois, Bell has organized panels to discuss the school-to-prison pipeline, a process he witnessed up close as many of his school peers ended up incarcerated. According to the Pew Research Center, Black citizens make up 12 percent of the total U.S. adult population but account for 33 percent of the prison population. 

“As I matriculated throughout school, there was always that sort of upfront notion that if you’re a Black boy, you’re going to prison.”

Dr. Charles Bell

“As I matriculated throughout school, there was always that sort of upfront notion that if you’re a Black boy, you’re going to prison,” Bell said. 

Feeling as though their voices weren’t heard, parents and students agreed to speak with Bell through a study funded by the American Society of Criminology. What he heard was startling. Some students believed they were suspended because educators misinterpreted their behavior. Many students, he felt, were being targeted because of their hairstyles, dress, music preferences, and friends. One student received a five-day suspension for breaking up a fight. Another child had been suspended 30 days for not wearing a proper uniform. 

Bell said that administrators handing down a high number of suspensions are putting children at risk because many of them consider school to be their safe haven.  

“One student in particular was suspended in violation of state and federal guidelines for 39 days, and during this suspension, there were a few people who were killed across the street from his home,” Bell said. “That could have been him because he wasn’t in school.”

This also has an adverse effect on parents who might have to scramble to cover hourly shifts in order to look after their child at home. Sometimes, parents have to choose between their job and keeping their children safe. 

The students who were interviewed felt compelled to defend themselves and develop a reputation that offered protection because they thought school guards and law enforcement officers were unresponsive. The students reported that receiving a suspension for fighting earned them popularity and respect among their peers, which deterred some confrontations.

“At its origin is students feeling unsafe. They’re feeling unprotected,” Bell said. “It really calls for a national dialogue on school suspensions and school punishment. We are distributing them without thinking of the ramifications.”

Bell is now a go-to spokesperson around the country for his work. He’s been interviewed and cited by several news outlets such as the Atlanta Black Star, The Conversation, WGLT, WDET Detroit, Al Jazeera America, Michigan Center for Youth Injustice, and Detroit PBS. Yet growing up attending an urban school district, he never thought he would have the opportunity to pursue such a career because of systemic circumstances.

The effort to change this will require so much more listening and doing than talking and tweeting. “It’s about doing the work,” Banks said, “when you put the phone down when nobody’s watching.”