Wednesday / May 29

Unfinished Business: #StudentBlackOut and Educational Inequity

On college campuses across the country, marginalized students are protesting about the lack of responsiveness of administrators to issues of racial awareness and equity, inclusive curriculum,  the absence of professors of color, tolerance of aggression towards students of color and LGBT students and other concerns specifically directed towards underserved populations. Any twitter user can go online under the hashtag #StudentBlackOut and find students with marginalized identities all over the country banding together to elevate attention to persistent, historical patterns that disproportionately impact them. These students are demanding nothing short of the end of systemic and institutional inequity; to create an inclusive learning environment. Those of us working in K-12 can learn a good deal if we pause to deeply consider what these young people are saying, because the challenges at the post-secondary level are directly related to the unfinished business in educational equity in our context.

Theme 1: Racial awareness and equity

In public education, under NCLB into the present, we have been disaggregating achievement data that show consistent, predictable patterns. Students of color, poor students, language diverse students, and students participating in special education programs underperform compared to their Asian and white, middle class, English-speaking peers without disabilities. Despite these patterns, very little in the way of substantive interruption of these trends has transpired over the period of this policy’s implementation. In fact, we are actually seeing some gaps (gaps described by way of social-economics) widening. In each of the student groups outlined above, one consistent commonality is the existence of a racial identity that should be understood as a means of both building relationships and creating learning experiences that are equitable. Unfortunately when conversations about race and racial equity are advanced, fear and discomfort, which are natural responses, are too often viewed as evidence that these discourses are not necessary. The silence around any continued inequity over time normalizes that condition.

As educators working in K-12 systems, it is our responsibility to create learning environments that are opportunity rich for all students. That cannot happen in ignorance of the lived experiences and perspective of students and communities whom we have historically had little proximity to and interaction with. Conversations about racial equity create conditions to create practices that are racial equitable. The winners of our collective actions in having these conversations will not be some students, but indeed all of them.

Theme 2: Inclusive curriculum and diversity in the teaching population

The possibility of diversity is the possibility of multiple perspectives that both shape and inform how we create the schooling experience. This consideration should be at the top of the list for those of us working in public schools that are only becoming more diverse with each passing year. It is not reasonable to expect past practices framed out of a no longer existing context to serve the learning needs of our present student population. It is not reasonable to expect our students to reach the greatest depth of understanding, connection, and application to curricula that has no relevance in their world. At best, these conditions create superficial learning and this is not what is demanded of our students in the 21st century global environment. All students deserve to have a learning experience that affirms their identity and readies them with confidence, but if we are unwilling to examine the “Push factors” (practices that inhibit the inclusion of diverse candidates) while investing in the “Pull factors” (directive recruitment and retention of diverse candidates) we will not change the trend of under-representation of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic teaching force.

Theme 3: Aggression toward students of color/LGBT students        

National data show that students of color are between 3 to 6 times as likely to be suspended from school as white students; black males are 3 times more likely to be suspended than white males, black females are 6 times more likely to be suspended than white females. (USDOE, 2014; African American Policy Forum, 2014) Simultaneously, research suggests that students of color don’t misbehave at higher rates than white children so the continuing disproportionate application of suspensions are particularly problematic in schooling (Frey, 2014). First, the consistent use of suspensions with black students suggests they are a group that should be both surveilled and policed. Reifying this type of belief about a group of students does not enable the foundation of an inclusive learning environment, it actually heightens fear and sows the seeds of exclusivity. Secondly, for students of color who matriculate to higher education, the implicit association between race and negative behavior is distortional and might explain why administrators have been slow to respond to concerns advanced by these students.

Additionally, in examining K-12 data describing the victims of bullying and harassment, statistics show that LGBT students are extremely vulnerable when compared with other student groups (GLSEN, 2014). The invisibility of LGBT students in K-12 blunt the possibility of the types of conversations that might engender awareness and inclusion of these young people into the larger community. I want to offer that these two trends that exist in K-12 data simply follow these young people onto college and university campuses.

Reports of hostile environments, racist acts etc. are minimized on college campuses because no concerted engagement has happened during the K-12 experience that would build students’ collective cultural competence. Cultural competence, as a skill, is not just important to adults serving students but is a crucial skill for students heading off into a world where the ability to effectively interact with people with different languages, cultural traditions, and values is essential. I have to wonder about how our continuing inability to have conversations that challenge us forebodes these kinds of experiences for students whose identities are marginalized when they leave our doors in K-12.

Refusing to be enrolled in a lie….

Ta-Nehisi Coates described the writing of his recent best-selling book, Between the World and Me as his refusal to be enrolled in a lie. College and university students all over this country are expressing the same sentiment through their protest. They are refusing to pretend that we have done the work of creating an equitable learning environment that includes and welcomes a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, sexually diverse student population. Their demands reflect the ways they think administrators can shift practices to respond to these inequities. The question for those of us working in K-12 is if we will similarly refuse to be enrolled in the lie….


Frey, S. (2014). National report highlights racial disparities in suspensions. Ed Source. Retrieved from:

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (2014). Retrieved from:

African American Policy Forum (2014).  Black girls matter: Pushed out, overpoliced, and underprotected.  Retrieved from:

Kosciw, J., Greytak, E., Palmer, N., & Boesen, M (2014). The 2013 National School Climate Survey The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. Retrieved from:

Written by

Lisa Williams is the director of equity and cultural proficiency for the Baltimore County Public Schools. She is a career educator, having served as classroom teacher, teacher mentor, Title I director, adjunct college professor, and educational consultant. She has expertise in culturally responsive instruction, creating equitable schools and school districts, and school transformation. Furthermore, she supports schools in implementing innovative initiatives that are designed to accelerate the achievement of underserved students. She believes that a quality educational experience is the linchpin to social and economic mobility. It doesn’t matter what vocation students aspire to, there is no getting around the ongoing progress of becoming educated. She believes in and is committed to helping educators make this journey a meaningful one for young people. She is committed because she knows that when education works, teachers and principals don’t see generation after generation of the same family in depressed communities. She knows that when public education works, teachers and principals do see mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers come back to depressed communities to serve as partners in the struggle to improve lives. She was born in Baltimore and attended Baltimore City Public Schools. Her own journey is a testament to what can happen when just one child is educated. Education continues to help her evolve into her own humanity and into the humanity of others.

Latest comments

  • This piece resonates so much with me. As someone who works in a large K-12 school system that is immersed in equity work, I think we do a disservice to students by not talking about race and the oppression of marginalized groups openly and honestly. As Dr. Williams states, “the silence around any continued inequity over time normalizes that condition”, and this is what we are seeing across the country right now. It is now “normal” for students to not see representations of their culture in school hallways and history books, it is now “normal” for students to not see representations of themselves in the teaching staff at their schools, it is now “normal” for schools and stadiums to be named after school presidents and public officials who endorsed and perpetuated racism. When it is 2015 and supreme court justices are still asserting bigoted ideologies, it is time for us to work from the inside out, to dismantle the broken systems thinking that got us here. We must stand together, raise our voices and support the students leading the #studentblackoutmovement, and perhaps make space for K-12 students to discuss inequities and make REAL and permanent change at the school level as well. Our students’ emotional welfare and futures depend on it.

  • I hope that higher Ed administrators aren’t regarding the #studentblackout movement as a storm to be weathered. Infusing racial equity into university culture necessitates committed leadership and transformative practices.

  • I wonder if there will be changes in function at the administrative level in response to student protests….

  • Great piece! As parents, educators and creators of future generations it is important to embrace all aspects of our children not only to continue the encouragement of them being their best self but to help expand the minds of our world to embrace our future. Learning, interactions and teaching have to be relevant on all levels to create an educational environment that allows all voices to be heard. We have to do better as a people creating P12 systems that produce successful college graduates who maximize that experience.
    Great words!

  • As a member of the K-12 I find this piece to be on point. Those of us in the education community are charged with unveiling the lie or continuing to bury our children of color and LGBT students in early academic, social, and emotional graves. Not perpetuating the lie means we not only examine our own beliefs and practices but call to the carpet those people and generational practices that hinder transparency. The uprising is starting in colleges, but it will soon be on our doorsteps in the K-12 community (if not already).

  • I have long maintained that colleges and universities are better at expressing a desire for diversity than they are at making themselves ready to receive diversity. Thanks to the #studentblackout movement, many institutions of higher education are now ready to examine the ways in which their ivory towers have upheld racial inequities.

leave a comment