Advocating for Equitable Discipline Practices – the South King County Discipline Coalition (SKCDC) 

A version of this article was originally published in April of 2019 in the South Seattle Emerald. 

Disproportionate discipline practices fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, and oftentimes parents feel powerless to change disproportionate discipline outcomes for their children. One group of dedicated Black parents just south of Seattle recognized racist discipline practices are unacceptable and decided to band together to make change.  

The South King County Discipline Coalition (SKCDC), which is largely comprised of Black mothers with first-hand experiences of racist discipline practices, is “committed to being led by and accountable to impacted community, and centering voices of youth and parents in our decision-making.” They not only advocate for change for their children’s educational experiences but also train other parents about their students’ rights and how to appeal racist discipline practices. 

Resources for Parents and Educators

The coalition offers Know Your Rights workshops, builds leadership and parent capacity, and leverages the coalition to support community-led work. They facilitate Know Your Power trainings and host experts like Dr. Debra Ren-Etta Sullivan to speak on “Cultivating the Genius of Black Children” and cultural learning styles.

The coalition also created a Parent’s Guide to the OSPI Behavior Menu of Strategies (co-written by Betty Peralta, another powerful resource for parents) to arm parents with resources to advocate for their child. The heart of the coalition’s work is community accountability and tailored to family needs. 

Founding Members of the Coalition

Emijah Smith, who defines herself as a mother first that taps into multiple organizing opportunities for equitable education for Black students, is one of the founding steering committee members. Here is her powerful testimony, including tips for parents faced with discriminatory discipline decisions: 

“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.” 

Halisi “Tha Wizdom Wordsmith” is another member of the steering committee, and adds her wisdom: 

“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.” 

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. It felt like I needed to know a secret handshake to get additional support. Eventually I realized the kids that were getting more support and programming were white. 

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.  

My advice to parents? Talk to your kid every day about what happened at school and how they were treated. 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, and get everything in writing.” 

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 urges us all to stand up and build the world we want to see.