A popular online racism quiz developed by Harvard University challenges test-takers to put positive and negative words, such as “failure,” “glorious,” “wonderful” and “nasty” into categories of “good” and “bad” and then to do the same with images of black and white faces. When they stumble at the tasks, many people who take the tests are a little stunned to discover that they are not as completely unprejudiced as they believed.
School administrators, faced with the results of study after study showing that African American students are overrepresented in exclusionary discipline actions (suspensions and expulsions), have much the same reaction: although confident that discipline policies are being applied fairly and equitably in their schools, the research proves otherwise.
In a recent issue of Urban Education, two researchers from Loyola University in Chicago, say it is time to move beyond documenting this inequity in study after study to doing something about it. More recently, researchers have documented the “school-to-prison pipeline” for students who are suspended or expelled from school.
Based on a review of the research, Pamela Fenning and Jennifer Rose recommend taking four steps to ensure that discipline policies are fair and effective. Discipline policies should go beyond suspensions and expulsions and incorporate positive behavior support, they say. More professional development for teachers could increase cultural competence and help avert some disciplining measures, they add, and school discipline policies should be reviewed by teams so that they are not subject to individual judgments.
“Suspension and expulsion, the most common responses in discipline policies, are not effective in meeting the needs of any student and, ironically, exacerbate the very problems they are attempting to reduce,” they write.
The four steps that should be taken to ensure fairness in disciplining of students are:
1.Collect and review discipline data. Collect schoolwide data to get important information about how discipline policies are working. Access and/or collect information by infraction to learn what behaviors result in the most severe consequences and whether any particular group is overrepresented in disciplining.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA, 2004) already requires that schools collect data on the suspension and expulsion of students in special education. Data on student discipline helps answer the following questions:
- Are expulsions and suspensions reserved for students who are clearly
engaging in unsafe behaviors that warrant their removal or are they being used
for relatively minor offenses?
- Are the discipline policies appropriate for the student body in general?
- If students of color are receiving significantly more referrals, what types
of interchanges result in these referrals?
- What changes in practice and what training and professional development for
personnel are needed to address overrepresentation of minority students in
- When schools use more proactive responses modeled after positive behavior
support, does this result in a reduction of discipline referrals?
2. Develop a discipline team. Develop a discipline team that is charged with considering the context of incidents leading to disciplining, particularly expulsions and suspensions of students of color. The team should be responsible for encouraging expected behaviors by students that are consistent with the positive behavior support model and for continued professional development around issues of equity in discipline. The team also should be
diverse, reflecting the ethnic make-up of the school.
“Discipline policies are more proactive and less punitive if created in a collaborative manner,” the researchers write.
3. Foster cultural competence. Most educators have not had significant contact with individuals outside of their own racial group, they write. Provide professional development to raise awareness of racism and of different communication styles and needs across the cultures, the researchers say.
Expulsions and suspensions from school often begin with teachers’ perceptions of loss of classroom control and accompanying fear. Often, interchanges between educators and students of color escalate to disciplining and lead to students being identified as “troublemakers.”
Teachers need to understand that African American students may lack understanding of the subtle nuances of classroom expectations that are highly defined by one’s culture, the researchers write. Professional development could focus on procedures for clearly defining and communicating schoolwide and classroom expectations for behavior, consistent with models of positive behavior support (PBS).
“Having discussions about the cultural meanings of behavior would be critical in preventing and responding to common sources of discipline referrals that ultimately lead to the removal of students of color from the school setting.”
“Ultimately, the desired outcome is a sense of responsibility for actively attending to racial inequities across all areas related to students (e.g., instructional and discipline policies).”
4. Include PBS in discipline policies. Expulsion and suspension play too big a role in most schools’ discipline codes of conduct, the researches say. It’s important to build positive behavior support in school discipline policies.
Suspension was the most common response for all types of infractions in one study of 64 secondary school discipline codes of conduct. Suspension was cited as an option for tardy behavior in 33% of policies, the researchers write.
Proactive measures, those with the potential to teach alternative expected behaviors were offered very infrequently. Suburban schools in higher socioeconomic areas were more likely to cite proactive responses such as substance abuse intervention for drug or alcohol infractions than urban high schools, according to the study of discipline codes of conduct.
“Once a referral is made to the office, it appears that there are very limited options in policies other than suspension,” the researchers write. “Related research suggests that schools that rely on the punitive procedures that populate discipline policies (e.g. suspension) are more likely to have minority overrepresentation in these exclusionary consequences.”
“Overrepresentation of African American Students in Exclusionary Discipline. The Role of School Policy,” by Pamela Fenning and Jennifer Rose, Urban Education, November 2007, volume 42, Number 6, pp. 536-559.
Published in ERN March 2008 Volume 21 Number 3