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Ed Secretary John King tried to reform school discipline. He thinks we still have a long way to go.

Education Secretary John King Jr. During News Conference Photo by Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images

For President Obama’s education secretary, school discipline is a personal issue.

John King says he loved school as a young child. It was a safe space in his otherwise complicated childhood. King’s mother died when he was 8, and his father, who had Alzheimer’s disease, died four years later.

In his teens, though, King says he became angrier. He was kicked out of high school for acting out and skipping class.

Back then, family members and teachers gave him a second chance and helped him complete his education. Now he's defending the need for school discipline reform nationwide: a system with more second chances, and fewer suspensions and expulsions.

"You would never say to a student, 'You got that math problem wrong. You must be the kind of student who gets math problems wrong. No more math for you,'" King told Vox. "But that is how we're approaching discipline: 'You've made a bad choice. You're the kind of person who makes bad choices. You leave the school community.'"

In his final weeks as education secretary, King spoke with Vox about the role that race and income play in school discipline and about what discipline might look like going forward.

What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Liz Scheltens

I was wondering if you could share a little bit of you own personal experience, both as a student and as an educator, in the importance of school as a safe place?

John King

My dad passed away when I was 12, and I ended up moving around between schools and family members. School always was the center, was the place where I felt safe.

But as I grew into a teenager, like many teenagers, I was angry. And like many teenagers who've had difficult early childhoods, I was angry with adults.

I acted out, got in trouble. Actually got kicked out of high school. I always say I'm the first secretary of education to be kicked out of high school.

Folks could have said, “Here's an African-American, Latino young man, family in crisis, got in trouble, didn't follow the rules. What chance does he have?” They could have turned their back on me.

But instead, I was fortunate to have some family members, mentors, and teachers who gave me a second chance, who helped me recover from the mistakes I'd made and get my life back on track.

And so in our work on discipline, I think a lot about the importance of second chances and the idea that young people are going to make mistakes, sometimes big mistakes.

Liz Scheltens

Help us paint a picture of the state of discipline in American schools broadly as you see it.

John King

It's quite varied. There are some schools that have really good systems in place to make sure that school is a safe and supportive environment for kids.

There are other places where — for example, we know that there are 1.6 million kids who go to a school where there's a sworn law enforcement officer and no school counselor. Or perhaps it's a school where the teachers are feeling overwhelmed, or there's a lot of teacher turnover, and they don't have the opportunity to develop strong relationships with students.

In some of those schools, when students misbehave, the response is to suspend students from school or to expel them.

There are even schools, unfortunately, in 22 states that respond to misbehavior with physical consequences, including paddling.

So there is this divide, and one of the things we're trying to achieve with the Rethink Discipline effort is to say, “All schools should be places that are safe and supportive. All teachers and principals should have the support and training they need to respond to student misbehavior in ways that are constructive.”

Liz Scheltens

To what extent do you see a relationship between that divide and the continuing resegregation of America's public schools by race and income?

John King

Unfortunately, we know that race and income are big factors in these disparate approaches to discipline.

We know for example that in pre-K, African-American students are 3.6 times as likely to be suspended from school as white students. Pre-K! Four-year-olds!

And we know that in the K-12 system, it's more like 3.8, so nearly four times as likely to be suspended. So we know race plays a role.

Sometimes that's a role around resources. African Americans are more likely to attend schools that are underresourced. And in those under-resourced schools, again, there isn't the capacity to support students’ social and emotional needs. Some of it is around issues of implicit bias.

Liz Scheltens

We've been spending some time at Eastern High School on Capitol Hill. They are doing something really interesting with a local nonprofit, bringing mindfulness in meditation classes into their curriculum.

I'm wondering if you have thoughts on contemplative practice as an option for an intervention.

John King

I'm actually very optimistic about the kinds of pilots we're seeing around the country around the use of mindfulness. Oftentimes, when you are trying to get to the bottom of why a student is lashing out at a peer or at a teacher, it's about some emotional struggle that they're going through. Mindfulness work can be a way to help students get through that.

You would never say to a student, “You got that math problem wrong. You must be the kind of student who gets math problems wrong. No more math for you.”

But that is how we're approaching discipline: You've made a bad choice. You're the kind of person who makes bad choices. You leave the school community.

Instead, we're saying, “Well, let's look at the problem. Let's look at what the mistakes were that you made.”

Liz Scheltens

We spoke with a researcher at [the University of Virginia] who is creating a curriculum around mindfulness in the classroom, and one of her big pushes is to bring it to teachers, because, as you mentioned, the lack of structural support is a huge contributing factor to the burnout rate for teachers in US public schools.

John King

We would be well served from a resource standpoint to have teachers feel supported and want to stay. We see this particularly in high-needs communities, where the turnover can be quite high.

A few things we need to do: We need to make sure that there are the kinds of resources that we would want for our own kids in every school — school counselors, ways to access mental health services, opportunities for students to do art and music and science. We need make sure that teachers feel like they have someone to go to for advice and feedback. We also need better structures to all be reflective on our own behaviors and choices.

I think there'd be tremendous benefit for teacher preparation programs in school districts — being very thoughtful about implicit bias, how you create classroom environments that support diverse students.

Liz Scheltens

I know that you're not able to comment on the political conversation surrounding the change in administration and the incoming secretary, but I wonder if you could talk a little bit more broadly about what it means to have experience attending, working in, and sending your children to public school as a secretary of education?

John King

I know from my experiences as a student: Public schools save lives every day.

From my time as a teacher and a principal in public schools, I understand how many challenges there are.

What I've tried to do is to do a lot of listening. To spend a lot of time listening to students, listening to educators, listening to parents, visiting schools all over the country. Our policy work has been informed by those conversations.

One of the things that anyone in this office should do is to spend time listening, talking with folks, trying to understand the problems and obstacles they face and then asking, “What can we as a department do to help? To make a difference in terms of outcomes, particularly for the students who are most vulnerable?”

The history of this department is it is a civil rights agency. Our job is to make schools stronger, and particularly make schools stronger for the kids for whom school makes all the difference.