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Yellow canary (Serinus mozambicus)There are mixed reactions to President Obama’s initiative aimed at helping boys of color reach their potential. Supporters argue that the proposed services are long overdue. Others argue that the program excludes girls of color who, like their male counterparts, also suffer the consequences of systemic inequities. They fear that My Brother’s Keeper reinforces gendered notions of male success, and demeans the efforts of single mothers to provide for their children.

Despite the controversy that surrounds it, My Brother’s Keeper underscores the short-sightedness of zero tolerance discipline policies, and the criminalization of childhood misbehavior. These policies are particularly detrimental to children of color. African American children are suspended 4x as often as their white peers; Latinos 2x as often. Nationally, one third of all African American male middle school students were suspended at least once during the 2009-2010 school year. And why? Because they were “willfully defiant”.

Suspensions are like the canary in the coal mine. They signal children’s downward slide. Even one suspension significantly increases a child’s chances of dropping out of school. And for many, suspensions increase the likelihood of involvement with the juvenile justice system.

My Brother’s Keeper challenges communities to step up to provide children and youth with the “rules and tools” they need to harness their emotions, regulate their behavior, and acquire the confidence they need to become successful, contributing adults.

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