“Hopefully, he will learn his lesson this time.”

And with the administrator’s words, the meeting was over. This would mark Jerome’s fifth suspension of the year and his 15th, 16th, and 17th days out of school for disciplinary reasons. Talking back to the teacher under his breath. Violating the dress code. Bumping a peer in the hall. Skipping class.

He just wouldn’t learn his lesson.

I met Jerome midway through the school year, shoulders already slumped under the weight of looming failure and blood roiling with the anger he used to disguise it. A 16-year-old ninth-grader, Jerome spent his school days with 14-year-olds, passing peers his age in the hallway as they made their way to their junior-level classes and he dragged his heels toward freshman English. Again. Hoping no one would notice.

He just wouldn’t learn his lesson.

And when he entered those classrooms, one foot taller and two years wiser than his peers freshly out of middle school, he felt stupid. And he felt angry. So he did everything he could to escape. The surest way, Jerome quickly learned, was by acting out.

He just wouldn’t learn his lesson.

So Jerome talked back. Jerome cussed. Jerome refused to engage in classroom activities, calling them dumb (which, sadly, too often they were, given his age and development). Jerome beefed with his peers. Sometimes he just plain walked out. Sometimes he just didn’t come at all.

He just wouldn’t learn his lesson.

And with each out-of-school suspension, like with each repeat of the ninth grade, it got worse. Because now he didn’t just feel “stupid,” but he was also aware that he was even further behind than before. So Jerome talked back even more. Jerome cussed with even more spite. Jerome more frequently refused to engage in classroom activities, calling them dumb now with reckless abandon. Jerome beefed with his peers every day. More often he just plain walked out. More often he just didn’t come at all.

He just wouldn’t learn his lesson.

If you asked him, Jerome did learn his lesson. He had learned it time and time and time again. But it wasn’t the one educators thought they were teaching. The lesson Jerome learned was this: That the place he felt least confident and least successful didn’t want him anyway.

In fact, that was the only lesson he took with him when he walked out the school doors a year later, his carbon colored dropout papers in hand.

As educators, community leaders, judges, and policymakers across the country examine — with new urgency and focus — school discipline policies and practices through the lens of equity, it might also be a good time to ask what lessons we’re trying to teach students through those policies and practices and whether they’re the same ones that are coming across.

Until we examine actual behavioral response to disciplinary action and hear the perspectives of students, the thing we should be most worried about is not that students like Jerome don’t learn their lesson — but, rather, that they do.

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