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Do race and class explain why some parents never get benefit of the doubt?


Stephanie Jones is a professor at the University of Georgia in the department of educational theory and practice. She focuses on gender, social class and education and works with teachers and schools to address the needs of poor and working students and families. 

A former elementary school teacher, Dr. Jones is author of “Girls, Social Class, and Literacy: What Teachers Can Do to Make a Difference” and co-author of “The Reading Turn-Around: A Five Part Framework for Differentiated Instruction.” She is one of the founders and directors of the CLASSroom Project, which aims to end classism in all its forms and has worked with about 4,000 educators in Georgia and Minnesota to support them in better understanding and engaging in "class-sensitive" approaches in the classroom. 

In this essay, Jones explains how classism and bias can play into decisions by classroom educators to report families to social services.

This is a complex issue, and Jones provides a good starting point to discuss it.

By Stephanie Jones  

There has been a lot of discussion recently about educators, and educators-in-training, being “mandatory reporters” of suspected child abuse or neglect under the Georgia Mandated Reporter Law. We all want children and young people to be in safe, nurturing, healthy environments, so on the surface this expectation of educators reporting suspicions of the contrary might sound good.  

However, clear evidence is mounting that implicit and explicit bias shape how people in authority – teachers, policymakers, judges – see and act toward others. While we have watched in horror as innocent youth and adults have been arrested, humiliated, suspended, expelled, dehumanized, beaten, jailed, and even killed because of errors in judgment or other “mistakes,” we have not yet seen the same level of visibility of how this might be playing out in mandatory reporting by those in positions of authority.  

Several years ago, a friend of mine called me from jail. They took the kids, she cried, I don’t know where they are. She was screaming at the child protective authorities to not take the kids, she was lunging for them, slapping people’s hands away from her with everything she had to try to get to her kids in the parking lot of her apartment building where the tragic scene unfolded. That’s when they called the police and she was arrested.  

A book wouldn’t be long enough to tell the heart-wrenching details of the 72 hours that followed, the two years after that, and what’s happening now. The jail time and court dates caused her to lose her job, then her car, but she had already lost her kids and herself.  

The closest foster home available was 100 miles away. No, they couldn’t stay with family nearby, yes, she could call them, no they couldn’t do anything if the foster parents wouldn’t let her talk to them, yes she could visit every week and the case worker would take her since she didn’t have transportation, no they couldn’t do anything when the case worker didn’t show up to take her for her visits.  

They said I was a bad mother, she wept. A white teacher even reportedly told her that she was a bad mother. She was black, living in a large apartment complex alone with her children, barely keeping the bills paid but smiling a lot and overall healthy and happy with her little family. But her mental and physical health deteriorated in shocking ways after the kids were taken away and she found herself dealing with a chronic illness she never had signs of before.  

I won’t go into details of this case or the dozens of others that I’ve heard of and listened to as mothers wipe away tears telling different versions of this same story over and over again.  

And I won’t go into details of conversations I’ve had with educators who say many of the same things over and over again: The child is dirty, the hair isn’t cared for, the clothes are dirty, they come to school without a coat, she always seems hungry but never brings a snack, the things they say aren’t appropriate and they must be hearing that from someone at home, the songs they hear and movies they watch are inappropriate, the mom doesn’t care and never comes to school functions, the homework isn’t done on time, she’s aggressive towards other children, or he’s too quiet and withdrawn and shy and looks scared all the time. There is always a string of perceptions – perceptions – that someone links together to make the assumption that it is a “bad home” with a “bad mom.”  

Have you been to their home? I often ask. The answer is always no.  

Have you asked the mom about these things? I ask. The answer is almost always no.  

When my (white and middle-class) child was in first grade the police were called on a (black and working-class) child who was acting out in class. The police removed him from the school and took him to the police station where his parents were called to come pick him up.  

Infuriated, I asked the principal if the police would have been called on my child if she had the same behavior.  

We both knew the answer.  

Some kids get a pass when they act like completely normal kids and have a bad day, lash out, resist, cry, forget things, get mad at someone, or get angry about something. Other kids don’t.  

Some parents get a pass when they drop off their crying child at school, send them with dirty clothes or tangled hair, expose them to sophisticated television or media, get behind on paying for lunches, or don’t attend functions because of busy work schedules. Other parents don’t.  

Some people get to meet a friend at a Starbucks coffeeshop, and other people don’t.  

I’m not suggesting there aren’t families that need extra support, counseling, financial help, or other structures to help them be the kind of family they want to be. And I’m not suggesting there aren’t children who are in dangerous situations and need advocates to get them out of those situations.  

What I am suggesting is that we need to open up some conversations.  

We need a more complicated and nuanced conversation about which children and families are perceived as needing state intervention, how race and class are playing a role in those perceptions, how economic resources and ways of “providing” are playing a role in those perceptions, and what – in reality – happens once a phone call is made to report suspected child abuse or neglect.  

We also need a more open, expansive, and inclusive conversation about parenting from many different perspectives. In the state of Georgia corporal punishment is still allowed in schools, but a mandated reporter might report a family using corporal punishment. And “free range” parenting is now permitted by law in the state of Utah but those same practices might be perceived as neglectful by authorities depending on what the parents look like, talk like, and where they live.  

Gandhi once said that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” and our young people are indeed among our most vulnerable people. We can always do better with them and on their behalf. Picking up the phone and calling an authority doesn’t mean we have done our job.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.