Why Is the Child Crying?

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The most important question in the world is, “Why is the child crying?”

Alice Walker

In the American school system, Black youth are routinely denied the grace and innocence of childhood. Black children are perceived as older and guiltier than their white counterparts, a perception born out of an amalgamation of dehumanization and racism. This is a dangerous perception that often subjects Black children to punitive school punishments in response to typical childhood behavior. The adultification of Black children impedes their right to be children, to grow, to learn, to make mistakes. So, why are adults more likely to deny Black children the presumption of innocence?

The truth is, adults see and treat children very differently. Anti-Black racial bias, implicit and explicit, conditions adults to believe Black children are less deserving of protection than their white peers. A 2014 study indicated, “Black children are seen as a decreasingly essentialized group. For the same individuals, White children were seen as an increasingly essentialized group.”1 The study explains that Black children are perceived as possessing less essential human qualities than white children. So when a Black child is believed to be deserving of discipline, their punishments are dehumanizing and harsh. Black children represent 19% of preschool enrollment, but 47% of all preschoolers suspended once or more are black.2 This suggests something has gone catastrophically wrong. Equally alarming is a child who is suspended once has a 25% less likelihood of graduating high school.3 At the onset of their academic journey, Black children are being pushed out of schools at unnerving rates.

The result of such unjust and inhumane disciplinary practices are environments that mimic correctional facilities instead of schools. American schools are being codified into a carceral state, with 14 million students attending a school with police in the buildings, but no key support staff like counselors, nurses, psychologists, or social workers. 4 Police in schools are linked with exacerbating the school-to-prison pipeline by increasing arrests for noncriminal behavior, like disturbing class. These zero-tolerance policies disproportionately target Black students, who are arrested at alarming rates (73% of all students arrested are Black), even though research confirms Black students are not misbehaving more than their peers.5

Police officers in schools, including Student Resource Officers (SRO’s) or Student Safety Officer’s (SSO’s), do not actually make schools safe.6 In fact, the presence of police officers worsens over-disciplining because police officers are not trained in preventative measures or to address student needs. Behavior is an indicator of student need. Those needs are not being met when students are arrested.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly half of all children in the United States had experienced a traumatic experience, also known as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE).7 ACE’s describe various forms of traumatic experiences such as abuse, homelessness, poverty, and household dysfunction. Although the pandemic is not yet formally defined as an ACE, several consequences of the pandemic, including illness, family instability, and learning disruptions, are. Trauma interrupts healthy brain development, warping a young brain by diminishing concentration, memory, decision-making skills, and mental health.8 Children with trauma are trapped in a fight or flight state, which influences how they form relationships and learn. Black children are reported to have more ACE’s than any other racial group.9

The pervasiveness of trauma in American classrooms indicates most educators will encounter students with trauma during their tenure. It is critical to protect Black students with trauma-informed practices that address mental health concerns. Trauma-informed practices contextualize student behavior and are useful tools in creating safe and high-quality learning environments for every child.10 

All children deserve a safe place to receive a free, high-quality education. Achieving such a goal requires shifting policy to protect Black youth from practices that, at their very core, are inhumane. We’ve identified three areas of policy change that ensure all students have access to spaces that nurture their well-being and development. 

  • Call on your senators and representatives in Congress to support the passage of the Counseling not Criminalization Act. This legislation is designed to decrease the number of arrests in schools and provide schools with the necessary funding to hire more mental health support staff.11
  • Pressure state governments and school districts to reinvest funds so that more counselors and support staff are allocated to schools and fewer SROs. Ultimately, the decision to use police in schools is up to state and local jurisdictions. To deliver nurturing and safe schools for all students, police must be removed from schools.
  • Demand teachers serving Black children have the necessary professional training and resources to provide effective instruction. We must place the onus on teachers and administrators in school buildings to be actively anti-racist and think critically about how they engage with Black children.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can protect the wonder of children and insist on letting a child be a child.

Please join us.

Visit Let a Child Be a Child to learn more, join the movement, and take action.


  1. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp-a0035663.pdf
  2. National Prevention Science Coalition:
    https://www.npscoalition.org/post/racially-disproportionate-discipline-in-early-childhood-educational-settings
  3. Roslyn Z. Wolf Lecture in Urban Education: Dr. Tyrone Howard: https://csuohio.zoom.us/rec/play/j_VoqwpJYOelFUScmM15aArZjzJJjNsXmN1O2jRUH7fz4-qyJ4-6w15S2VD-wnWtnwh8IywItf0zUA7I.0_y2JzP0DxEhbZYY?startTime=1634044271000
  4. ACLU: https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline/cops-and-no-counselors
  5. The Education Justice Research and Organizing Collective: https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/metrocenter/ejroc/ending-student-criminalization-and-school-prison-pipeline
  6. Chalkbeat: https://www.chalkbeat.org/2019/2/14/21121037/new-studies-point-to-a-big-downside-for-schools-bringing-in-more-police
  7. EdWeek: https://www.edweek.org/leadership/what-does-it-mean-to-be-trauma-informed-a-4-part-video-explainer
  8. NEA Center for Great Public Schools: https://www.nea.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/Addressing%20the%20Epidemic%20of%20Trauma%20in%20Schools%20-%20NCSEA%20and%20NEA%20Report.pdf
  9. UNC School of Social Work: https://jordaninstituteforfamilies.org/2020/racism-is-an-adverse-childhood-experience-ace/
  10.  Crisis Prevention: https://www.crisisprevention.com/Blog/Trauma-Informed-Schools
  11.  Fact Sheet: The Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act: https://www.murphy.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/CNCA_One_Pager.pdf

January 14, 2022
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The Expectations Project
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