Respect for All in Davis Classrooms

By Madhavi Sunder

Schools must be safe spaces for children of all races, and for LGBT children. As School Board Trustee, I will work to my utmost to ensure that all our children feel valued and respected. While Davis is a wonderful community and I feel lucky to raise my children here, we are hardly immune from issues of racism and homophobia. We live in a country and a world where racism and homophobia sadly persist.

I have seen first-hand the effects of racism in Davis. As early as preschool, my daughter was taunted because of her dark skin. This left her frightened, and reluctant to go to school. My daughter was hardly alone. The Human Rights Commission forum “Breaking the Silence of Racism” in 2012 and my own interviews with parents in the community reveal that many children and families experience heart-wrenching encounters with racism and homophobia in our schools, and at every grade level.

More recently—in the community, but not the schools—we saw the shocking beating of Gloria Partida’s son Mikey for being different than his assailant. Gloria and I have written a column for the Davis Vanguard on the importance of combating hate in Davis schools.

In our effort to combat bullying, however, we must recognize that bias can affect who is targeted for discipline and who is seen as the victim. As a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2012 on “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline” observed, nationally African American students are “three times more likely to be suspended and four times more likely to be expelled than their white peers, and more than 70 percent of students arrested in schools are African American or Latino.” School suspensions lead to children being out of school and increase their likelihood of being sent to the juvenile justice system. As the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing observed, “our number one priority has to be keeping our kids safe.”

If elected to the Davis School Board I would support safe, inclusive environments that promote engagement and learning for all students. As I have written in two earlier columns—one on anti-bullying programs in our schools and another on how to combat the achievement gap—students cannot learn and thrive in schools if they do not feel welcome or safe. We must address the problem of “school refusal”—children refusing to go school because of anxiety over social bullying or academic stress.

Here are some specific things we are currently doing in our schools and should do in the future to support these goals:

1) Safe spaces for discussion. Community leaders like my friends Gloria Partida, founder of the Davis Phoenix Coalition, and Emerson Jr. High teacher Jennifer Terra, as well as others, have created forums for students to share experiences of discrimination with each other and with the adults in their lives. These conversations are crucial for helping children and adults understand others’ experiences of discrimination, and for fostering empathy and understanding. Students must know that they can talk to counselors, teachers, principals, and peers about issues of racism and homophobia.

2) A curriculum that reflects our diversity. School curriculum should reflect our diversity and support not only academic but also social and emotional learning, including the values of respect and inclusion.

3) Implicit bias training. We must give teachers and administrators the tools and the training they need to keep our schools safe, and to ensure that we have high expectations for all students, regardless of race or background. Implicit bias shapes self-perception (affecting individual performance in school and on tests), and our perception of others. The district must provide systematic training for school staff and students on implicit bias.

4) Monitoring discipline rates. We must continue to collect data to identify racial and other disparities in suspension and expulsion rates in our schools.

5) Restorative justice. We must explore alternative justice programs such as the restorative justice approach currently being piloted at Da Vinci High School. Restorative justice involves fellow students mediating conflicts. As the Senate Judiciary Hearing on Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline notes, “Research demonstrates that these programs improve school climate, academic performance, and student attendance, as well as to reduce discipline referrals, suspensions, expulsions, and out-of-class time due to discipline referrals.”

6) Role models and mentoring. Hiring diverse teachers, coaches, educators, and tutors provides influential role models for students of color.

7) Reading together to promote empathy and understanding. Literature is a powerful vehicle to help students develop understanding and empathy by putting themselves in the shoes of another. I have proposed a schools book project, through which students throughout the district would read and discuss a common book. As my friend and supporter the philosopher Martha Nussbaum says, “Arts education is not just tremendous fun and a great incentive to learning in general, it’s also a very important part of democracy’s future. Through the arts young people learn to imagine the world through the eyes of people different from themselves, an ability that’s crucial for good citizenship.”

8) Offer diverse images. We must ensure that students of color and LGBT students see themselves reflected in the school curriculum, in the people we celebrate through naming, and in the images that they see around them. In 2005, I led the campaign to name our newest elementary school after the native California civil rights hero Fred Korematsu, who challenged the constitutionality of the Japanese Internment. Today, Korematsu Elementary is a “social justice school” that works diligently to create an inclusive community. This month Korematsu children celebrate “Heritage Month” – children will attend school in heritage dress and with food to share and pride in their diverse identities. Author Sandy Holman recently spoke to the children about respect for diverse heritage, and left the children reciting: “I will try my best to show respect, to use my talents, to really listen, to not stereotype, to show compassion and to try my best to have a good life.”

My husband, Anupam Chander, and I have published a comic book for children on the life of Fred Korematsu. The book can be purchased on, but we also made it available in its entirety for free online so as to reach as many people as possible. The book teaches children, through the example of Fred’s own life, that being an American is not based on the color of our skin, but rather our shared commitment to civil liberties and the Constitution, and our shared ideals of freedom and equality.

Madhavi Sunder has been a professor of law at UC Davis since 1999 (affiliation provided for identification purposes only) and is a candidate for the Davis School Board in November 2014. To learn more about her campaign please visit or follow (and perhaps “Like”) her on Facebook at

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts


  1. ryankelly

    This is the best article, by far, coming from Madhavi Sunder.   I feel that she has fully grasped many of the facets of including all children in the goal of keeping them safe while helping them progress toward graduation.   School discipline and how it is meted out plays a huge role in sending children off track or leaving them behind and needs to be carefully monitored so the child’s best interest is always the primary factor.

    The only point that I would make is that, while empathy is good, developing compassion for others is one step better.

    1. Davis Progressive

      ryan: i’m with you.  i’ll go a step further, it’s the best answer i’ve seen to date on this issue.  at the same time, it doesn’t go far enough.

      1. wdf1

        D.P.: “at the same time, it doesn’t go far enough.”

        I agree.  There’s a lot of good stuff in her piece, but what is missing for me is addressing elements of income disparity, ELL status, even special ed. status.  These are “achievement gap” issues, but they readily spill over into issues of climate, participation, and opportunity.

        If one wasn’t inspired to address these issues because it’s the right thing to do, then a pragmatic reason is that government accountability increasingly focuses on the success of these specific groups of students.  Right now we are at the cusp of transitioning from a NCLB accountability framework to a California LCAP/Common Core accountability framework in education.  It’s critical to stay ahead of the curve to at least define parameters and strategies for success locally for these categories.  The problem with NCLB is that it focused everything on standardized test scores in two subjects — math & English Language arts.  LCAP & Common Core seem more open to the concept that there are many more components contributing to student success.

  2. Davis Progressive

    “my own interviews with parents in the community reveal that many children and families experience heart-wrenching encounters with racism and homophobia in our schools, and at every grade level.”

    i’m glad she has done her own research here, because i read too many people who have done absolutely no research denying this problem.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
Sign up for