Uncovering Schools’ Hidden ‘Language of Exclusion’

By Macheo Payne, Ed.D., MSW


When I worked at an alternative middle school in Oakland, the behavior of some of the students was a significant challenge. I frequently would hear adults offer up explanations for students behavior. These reasons frequently blamed the family. Phrases like: "They don't value their education", implied that these students have a negative identity as a learner. Another one is: "They just don't know how to act", this time implying that the student has a negative behavioral identity, basically the 'bad boy' or 'bad girl' identity. Finally, "They don't know right from wrong", a statement implying that this student lacks morals. 

I call these the 'three identities' of excluded students. These identities; the negative learner, the bad behaved, and the negative moral student are three identities that are interchangable and all uniquely detrimental to the student who is the target of exclusion with this type of labeling. Fortunately, I also identify an alternative framing of each negative identity and the assumptions that inform the framing.


The first one, the negative learner, carries several misconceptions about targeted populations in schools. One of them is the assumption that based on their observations, a student does not value their education and is not interested in learning or working hard. The alternative framing is that perhaps they reflect the fact that everyone else has already given up on them as learners. In this way, they actually reject the school for what it is: an inferior educational setting that proves time and time again that it frequently does more harm than good. So in this way, these students have a high value for a good education which is exactly why they reject what they experience to be a poor education. 

The second negative identity is the behavior identity. It implies that the student doesn't know how to behave and even that it is their nature to misbehave. This is problematic and can be viewed differently when you consider these students behavior often doesn't reflect their potential to be violent but rather it is evidence that they are in fact victims of violence in the home, the community and violence in the form of school discipline and response to behaviors of targeted populations. Child development tells us that children lash out mostly when they are afraid, have been harmed and are trying to defend themselves. Unfortunately, instead of addressing the students lack of safety, the belief is that the students should improve their behavior through punishment. This is where we get in trouble with suspensions.

The third identity, the immoral person is assumed to have no moral compass and not know the difference between right and wrong. What is closer to the truth however with many of these students is they reflect the reality that society has viewed them as inherently criminal, in fact targeted populations are targeted in a way where they are made to feel as if their very existence is wrong and therefore criminal. It's logical then to assume that if you have been fundamentally mistreated in society, that your experience of the law felt 'wrong' and that the criminal justice system, designed to right the wrongs of society, is instead terribly wrong and unjust itself. 

Part II is coming soon...