Seeking Equitable Solutions in Discipline

Short-circuit the biases that target students of color more often and more harshly.

Topics: Equity and Diversity

Statistics from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined in K–12 public schools during the 2013–2014 school year, regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of school students attended. And more recent studies indicate that Black students experience more punitive school discipline than any other racial group.

This is an ongoing, nationwide problem that demands to be addressed. The lasting consequences of being excluded from school through suspension or expulsion can affect a child into adulthood, increasing the likelihood of grade retention, dropping out, and prison time. Black students caught in the school-to-prison pipeline easily go from perceived troublemaker to felon. We owe it to students to break the cycle of inequity early.

Bias in Referrals

Research suggests that part of inequity in discipline might be a result of referral practices affected by teachers’ implicit bias—an automatic and unintentional bias that affects judgments, decisions, and behaviors, the National Institutes of Health says.

When taking an implicit association test administered by the Pew Research Center, most people favor the group of which they are a member, with about three-quarters of respondents in each of five defined racial groups demonstrating some degree of implicit racial bias.

The majority of U.S. teachers are white, female, and middle class. They tend to create classroom expectations based on their own cultural norms, which can lead to interpretations of behavior that are disadvantageous to students of color.

Stereotypes that have been around for centuries continue to reinforce bias, conscious and not. And negative racial stereotypes associated with Black students increase the likelihood that teachers view infractions over time as a pattern.

It’s one thing to become aware of a problem, but it’s another to discuss it. Conversations about race, stereotypes, and implicit bias can help us reflect on our own views and interactions, as well as seek out solutions.

Overcoming Implicit Bias

The first step in confronting bias is to become aware of it. Research suggests that people can recognize implicit bias in themselves and their schools and learn techniques to overcome it. Schools and districts can start the discussion by examining discipline data for disproportionality.

Leaders should establish structures for staff discussions on the topic. The goal is to identify disparities and create a race-conscious analysis of the causes behind them. This might lead to the development and implementation of interventions and the monitoring of their effectiveness.

Discussion groups must agree on principles ahead of these conversations to keep the discourse nonaccusatory. I suggest keeping conversations surrounding implicit bias and racism to groups of no more than six at first; groups might expand with more experience.

Having teachers watch videos of their interactions with students can help unpack disciplinary incidents and avoid repeating stereotypes and scripted analysis. At least one study has shown that educators work more effectively with students of color when they reframe “deficit” viewpoints.

Diversifying the Profession

Another part of the suggested solution is to diversify the education profession. Teachers of color can serve as role models for students of color, boosting self-worth and motivating them to strive for academic success. Role models show students of color that professional success is attainable.

While supportive of diversifying the teaching profession, Montclair State University researcher Ana Maria Villegas says in “Closing the Racial/Ethnic Gap Between Students of Color and Their Teachers: An Elusive Goal” that “the presence of teachers of color alone is not sufficient to improve the education of students of color.”

While teachers who share the same cultural backgrounds as their students might have an advantage over teachers who do not, studies show that white teachers can overcome racial barriers to support students of color by building their awareness of students’ culture and its effect on student behavior.

Getting to know students and finding the similarities you have with them can help build relationships and replace negative associations with positive ones. This breaks down implicitly biased, automatic reflexes and builds empathy.

An equity-focused framework of positive behavior interventions and supports has been shown to reduce racial disproportionalities in exclusionary discipline. A schoolwide framework appears to be more effective and consistent than interventions that focus on individual educators.

Checking the Data

No matter which actions are chosen to disrupt patterns in disciplinary disproportionality, accountability and evaluation are an important part of the process. You can’t assume that interventions are closing gaps; they must be tested and measured.

This means monitoring behavior data for patterns continually, and it might extend to peer data collection, which can help educators understand how bias might be affecting their interactions with students. As you examine the data, ask if there is evidence that you’re reducing disparities, if supports are more effective with certain groups than others, and what changes might make discipline more effective and equitable for all students.

Realizing that there’s a nationwide problem with equity of discipline is an important first step, but schools must follow with actions that combat immediate and lasting consequences. This should include an examination of the data, conversations about racial stereotypes and implicit bias, and interventions and the evaluation of their impact.

It’s a cause that demands our attention and efforts, and there are promising solutions. School leaders have a responsibility to ensure more equitable practices and outcomes for all students.

Jessica B. Hodge is an instructional coach at Fulton County Schools in Atlanta.