12-Year-Old Black Boy Suspended for Staring at a White Girl Who Stared Back

His participation in the game allegedly made her 'feel fearful.'

(Photo: Courtesy Google)

Oct 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

The Internet is littered with tips and tricks for winning that awkward yet endlessly amusing staple of childhood life: the staring contest. Last year the Dali Museum even made an app that lets people have a competition with a virtual Salvador Dalí. But if you’re wondering exactly how the school-to-prison pipeline works, an incident in Ohio in which a judge has upheld a school suspension of a black boy who was having a staring contest with a white girl who was a classmate might provide some insight.

Last week Patrick Dinkelacker, a judge in the Hamilton County Common Pleas court, upheld the September 2014 suspension of the 12-year-old from St. Gabriel Consolidated School in the town of Glendale, about 20 minutes north of Cincinnati.

“My son stared at a girl who was engaged in a staring game,” Candice Tolbert, the boy’s mother, told Fox19. “She giggled the entire time,” said Tolbert. She also expressed concern over allegedly inconsistent application of the school’s discipline policies.

“The same girl that accused my son of this act of perception of intimidation, aggressively poured milk on someone else’s lunch. When she did that, there was no penalties for that. She received nothing for that,” Tolbert told the station.

Tolbert and her husband filed suit against the school in an effort to get the one-day suspension removed from their son’s academic record. The girl said that she “felt fearful” during the staring contest, according to court documents. The day after the contest took place, the girl’s parents contacted school officials about how their daughter was scared of the boy. The administrators talked to the boy, and he subsequently wrote an apology letter to the girl.

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“I never knew she was scared because she was laughing,” the boy wrote in the letter, according to Fox19. “I understand I done the wrong thing that will never happen again. I will start to think before I do so I am not in this situation,” he added. Tolbert and her husband were not notified that there was an issue until the day after their son wrote the apology.

According to Fox19, the school’s handbook states: “The principal is the final recourse in all disciplinary matters and may waive any and all rules at his/her discretion for just cause.” The school administration has refused requests for comment, and a statement from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati seems to support the actions of the administrators, as well as the court ruling.

“Judge Patrick Dinkelacker listened to the plaintiff’s arguments yesterday, rejected them, and dismissed the complaint against the school. We aren’t going to comment any further on particular issues concerning our students,” reads the statement.

In recent years black children have been escorted out of class by police for wearing the wrong shoes to school and suspended for holding up three fingers in a photo. As seen in the cases of Florida teen Kiera Wilmot and Texas teen Ahmad Mohamad, disciplinary action and law enforcement involvement might happen when black kids choose to demonstrate their scientific knowledge. Indeed, black students are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

What's driving the boom in suspensions? According to research, black children may not be seen as innocent in the eyes of teachers or other parents.

A paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that black children "as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime."

To address the problem, in January 2014 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and then–Attorney General Eric Holder released a 35-page document of guidelines on school discipline. The effort was designed to help teachers and principals pay more attention to the social and emotional needs of students and reduce their reliance on suspension and expulsion as a punishment.

"A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Holder said in a statement at the time.

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The "Belief Statement" on the website of St. Gabriel Consolidated School indicates that the staff is aware of the need to treat students equitably. “We believe each child has the right and ability to learn” and “We believe that cultural diversity is good,” it reads. However it seems Candice Tolbert is no longer convinced that the school has her son's best interests in mind.

“We invested academically into our son [for] the betterment of his education,“ Tolbert told radio host Joe Madison on his Sirius XM show, The Black Eagle, on Tuesday morning. “At the end, they want to brand him and mark him.”

“Now we’re looking to go to other schools," said Tolbert. She also expressed fear that transferring might not be so simple for her son, who is "a young black male coming to another school with his suspension on his record.”