FigTree Header 10.14


To place an ad on 1200 pages - see our rates

Comment on this article

facebook logo
on our Facebook page

twitter logo
on our Twitter feed

Bookmark and Share

Share this article
on your favorite social media

Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Eastern Washington Legislative Conference 2015: Raising Prophetic voices

Equity can undo the school-to-prison pipeline


Even though the United States is growing more diverse, Roberta Wilburn told participants at the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference that racial segregation is growing.

Roberta Wilburn, EWLC speaker
Roberta Wilburn calls for changes in state education policies.

As associate dean of graduate studies in education and diversity initiatives and professor at Whitworth University for eight years, she knows that black preschoolers face more discipline than their peers, 56 percent of African American fifth graders are held back, and one in four African American males experience suspension during school years.

About half of African American high school graduates cannot read at grade level.  Those who can’t fill out job applications to have jobs are more likely to fall into crime, she said, calling the faith community to challenge the school-to-prison pipeline pro-actively through legislation.

Achievement and accessibility gaps continue through schools with more suspensions and expulsions of black students, she said. 

Spokane has the fourth highest suspension-expulsion rate in the state, 7.2 percent, compared to Seattle’s average of 4.2 percent

“If marginalized students are suspended for three, five or 10 days, it puts them that many days behind, keeping the student from being successful,” Roberta said.   “Sending students home where they may be unsupervised should be the exception, not the rule.

“Research shows that suspension and expulsion do not change behavior,” she said.  “It’s better to keep students in school and practice restorative justice to help the students understand the impact of their behavior.  Discipline should be about changing behavior.”

Roberta pointed to cultural disparities in defining “disrespectful behavior,” often about a student looking at a teacher the “wrong way.”

An educator may say, “Look into my eyes when I talk to you,” expecting that’s a sign of paying attention.  In another culture, for a child to look into the eyes of an adult is disrespectful.  In California gang culture, looking someone in the eye is an invitation to fight. 

“Teachers need to understand different ways of looking at behavior,” Roberta said.  “They need to know who they are working with or they lose students.

“Often, young people of color are not treated the same as white students,” she said.  “When they experience bullying and racial discrimination, it is overlooked.” 

For example, an African-American cheerleader was threatened with the KKK and called the “N” word.  Nothing was done to the bullies.  When the girl’s older sister asked others not to treat her sister that way, she was suspended, while officials let the bullying slide, Roberta said

The “achievement gap” comes from a disparity in educational opportunities for people of color. 

Statistically, African Americans are over-represented in special education and underrepresented in gifted programs, Roberta said.  Talented students of color are usually not identified as gifted.

“My husband, James, as supervisor of youth initiatives and community/parent involvement at Spokane Public Schools, talks with honors high school students about college.  When he encouraged some to apply to Harvard University, which has scholarships for first-generation, low-income students who meet academic requirements, he was told he was building false expectations,” said Roberta.

In contrast, her bishop in Memphis had told her to “reach for the moon because if you missed, you would still be among the stars.”

“We need equal opportunity and equal access for all children,” said Roberta, adding that Spokane schools lack teachers, administrators and faculty of color.  Teachers and the curriculum do not reflect that 20 percent of students in Spokane schools are children of color.

When African American, Native American and Hispanic American students take honors class, they study European history.  The curriculum does not represent their cultural or racial history beyond Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Black History Month in February.

“Curriculum needs to be relevant to students or they turn off,” said Roberta.  “Teachers need to be sensitive to culture as the country becomes more diverse.”

Some education students who come to Whitworth have never gone to school with a person of color, nor have they had a teacher of color.  When they graduate, they will teach classes with Hispanic, biracial and African American students, so they need to know how to work with them.

“Spokane is a refugee city, with 600 refugees being resettled each year, people speaking 30 languages.  If these students have teachers who lack experience of cultural differences, they may not understand how these children receive information,” she added.

“Spokane also has a large biracial population,” she said.

“What can we do as Christians to let people of color know they are welcome?” she asked.  “From my work at a historically black college, I know there are teachers looking for jobs.  We need to recruit them to come here.

“Whitworth is the best place I have worked because it’s the body of Christ acting like the body of Christ.  I feel I’m a valued member of the family,” she said.

Give-and-take is part of cross-cultural relations, breaking barriers and helping people know they are valued. 

“Whitworth is ready to work with Spokane schools to infuse civil rights curriculum, starting in second grade,” she offered.  “I’m hopeful, but we have a long way to go. Pouring money into an outmoded system will not work.  We need reform.”

Roberta, who is also president of the Spokane Ministers Fellowship, pledged to work with the Faith Action Network of Washington and African Americans around the state to take on social justice issues.

She wrote the education proposals to help the state better meet needs of African American and biracial students.  The Washington Christian Leadership Coalition presented to Governor Jay Inslee on Feb. 16, African American Legislation Day.

“We need funding to close the achievement gap.  We need more school counselors who look at behavior in the context of culture and trauma, understanding students’ struggles,” she said.  “We need to hire more teachers who will do appropriate discipline and fund in-school suspension to separate students for discipline but allow them to keep up.”

Roberta hopes churches will help advocate for such changes to meet the challenges related to education. 

For information, call 777-4603 or email

Copyright © March 2015 - The Fig Tree