“Problem Children” and “Children with Problems”: Discipline and Innocence in a Gentrifying Elementary School

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By bhadmin February 2, 2021

This article examines the ways Hazel, a white girl entering kindergarten, became known as a child with a problem rather than a problem child in her gentrifying school. Building on a year of classroom observations and interviews with students, school staff, and parents, author Alexandra Freidus identifies the role of racialized discourses related to disposition, medicalization, family, and community in shaping Hazel’s reputation and contrasts Hazel’s reputation with that of Marquise, a Black boy in her class. Hazel’s and Marquise’s storylines teach us that to fully understand and address the differences in how Black and white children are disciplined, we need to look closely at the allowances and affordances we make for some students, as well as how we disproportionately punish others. By examining the ways educators in a gentrifying school construct white innocence and Black culpability, this study illustrates the relational nature of the “school discipline gap” and helps us understand how and why some children are disproportionately subject to surveillance and exclusion and others are not.

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