Anne Gregory remembers the boy's fondness for the Dewey decimal system. He wrote down a combination of numbers and letters on a piece of paper and hunted the desired book in the library. Details were his thing. She once wrote several pages describing the sequence of moves needed to overcome a video game, she says.
But in the elementary school where Gregory worked as a counselor, the educators saw a different child. A problematic one. A teacher told Gregory that the boy often walked halfway through the lesson. Then the teacher moved his desk to the other end of the room and sometimes sent it to the principal’s office.
Outside the principal's door, the boy joined a row of almost all the black boys. But black and Latino students together made up just over half of the school’s student population. Gregory presented his concerns to the director. Why did that guy always have problems? Why did that line of problematic assumptions distort blacks and men?
It was the mid-1990s, a time when educators and researchers knew that black students, on average, scored lower on standardized tests than white students. This “achievement gap” was, by then, a cause for concern. But the way educators treated black children was rarely part of the discussions. The principal told Gregory that her concerns, while potentially valid, were “too hot” to address.
“I could only see how much the school structure itself crushed the potential of this African-American boy and all his strengths,” Gregory says. "That, accompanied by the silence around his school, showed me the absolute urgency, the need, to point it out."
Gregory, now a psychologist at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, has dedicated his career to pointing out the problem. In the January 2010 educational research paper, she and her colleagues used the term “disciplinary loophole” to characterize what she observed: black students, especially children, were punished more frequently and severely than their white peers, despite the lack of evidence that the children committed more crimes. Those punishments ranged from teachers sending students to the principal’s office to expulsion. The disproportionate removal of black students from school may be the basis of the achievement gap, argue Gregory and others.
I could only see how much the very structure of the school was crushing the potential of this African American boy and all his strengths.
In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the “Every Student Success Act,” in part to reduce the practices that take students out of classes. The act required each state to collect and report data on discipline and school districts had to formulate alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. A handful of states and districts have banned suspensions for minor offenses, such as talking to a teacher.
But President Donald Trump’s administration has backtracked on key requirements. And as of July 2020, no state has fully reported disciplinary data, according to an Oct. 11 report from the Civil Rights Project, a UCLA group that promotes research on social justice. In addition, black high school and high school students were four times more likely to be suspended than white students, based on federal data from the 2015-16 school year.
Political change just can’t close the gap, says Russell Skiba, a psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington who focuses on equity in education. Educators must also transform their view of black students. “What we need are interventions that contemplate both a reduction in the overall use of the discipline of exclusion, but also focus on issues of implicit bias [and] structural racism,” says Skiba.
Removing black students from the classroom takes away their lifelong opportunity, adds Daniel Losen, director of the UCLA Civil Rights Resource Center and co-author of the October report. Compared to other students, punished students are more likely to fall behind academically, often for years, have lower test scores, drop out of school, earn less, and end up in jail. “This is a massive violation of civil rights,” Losen says.
Punitive practices in U.S. schools are nothing new. Teachers used to row or whip students in the early 1900s. Corporal or physical punishment remains legal in many states to this day. In the 1960s, teachers and other educational leaders also began suspending students for misconduct.
Tough discipline in all its forms was falling into disgrace until the crack cocaine epidemic began to ravage black communities in the 1980s. Politicians have launched “a war on drugs” to end that scourge. Violent crime also reached its peak in the early 1990s. Those twin forces brought about changes in politics in the 1980s and 1990s that made prison sentences harder for drug and violence offenses, including mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes. At the time, people believed that criminals thrived in chaotic, lawless environments, Losen says. So law enforcement began making appointments for even minor infractions.
Those draconian practices came to the classroom. President Bill Clinton signed the Unarmed Schools Act of 1994 which required the expulsion of a minimum of one year from any student who carried a weapon to school, without the need for a hearing. States soon passed zero-tolerance laws that led to suspensions or expulsions even for misdemeanors. Students were removed from school for using "weapons" such as nail or gum cutters or for distributing "smuggled" cough drops. Today, zero-tolerance policies account for approximately 10 percent of the racial discipline gap, education policy expert Chris Curran of the University of Florida at Gainesville reported in the December 2016 educational evaluation and analysis report.
Compared to other students, punished students are more likely to fall behind academically, often for years, have lower test scores, drop out of school, earn less, and end up in jail.
Educators ’explicit or implicit prejudices against black children also keep the gap wide, the research suggests. Such prejudices are present even in preschoolers. In one study, researchers fitted 132 early school teachers with eye trackers and asked them to watch video clips of four boys – a black girl, a black boy, a white girl and a white boy – sitting around a table. Researchers told teachers to look for misbehavior.
Actually, none of the children misbehaved, but observers revealed that teachers spent more time looking at the black child. And in an accompanying questionnaire asking which boy required more attention, 42 percent of respondents chose the black boy, 34 percent chose the white boy, 13 percent chose the white girl, and 10 percent chose the black girl. , Yale University researchers wrote in a report to federal and state officials in September 2016.
Another study shows how these biases contribute to teachers disciplining black students more harshly than white ones. The researchers asked 191 teachers of K-12 students to imagine teaching in a middle school represented in a photograph. Teachers then read a series of cartoons about a student who had problems twice, once for insubordination and once for disrupting class. Researchers told half of the teachers that the student’s name was Darnell or Deshawn, black stereotyped male names; for the other half, the boy was called Greg or Jake, stereotypically white male names.
After each incident, teachers answered the questions on a seven-point scale. Questions included, "To what degree was the student misbehaving?" and "How severe should the student be disciplined?" After the first misbehavior, the teachers were equally lenient with the black and white children. But after the second misbehavior, teachers rated black boys as 25 percent more problematic than white boys and recommended 30 percent tougher disciplinary responses, social psychologists Jason Okonofua and Jennifer L. Eberhardt of the University of New York reported. Stanford in 2015 in Psychological Sciences. Researchers called this discovery the paradigm of the "two attacks."
Sean Darling-Hammond, a graduate student in education policy at the University of California, Berkeley who collaborates with Okonofua, also now at UC Berkeley, to study how bias can manifest in institutions, shows that that study can continue that line of research. After repeated behaviors, teachers were more lenient with white students, but penalized black students.
The October report provides the most up-to-date snapshot of the disciplinary gap. The report’s data comes from the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights data collection and includes information on student enrollment, demographics, and discipline in every public school in the country.
General suspension rates have come down under the Obama administration, probably in part because 15 states have enacted laws that discouraged suspensions. California, for example, marks districts that suspend more than 6 percent of their students and help reduce rates in those districts.
When grades K-12 came together, suspension rates dropped from 4% to 3% for white students and from 16% to 13% for black students, between 2009-10-10 and 2015-16.
But with black students still suspended at four times the rate of white students, the report also highlights the shortcomings of relying solely on policy changes to close the gap. No policy can capture the myriad of interactions that occur in a school, says educational policy researcher Kenneth Shores of the University of Delaware in Newark. Consider common scenarios: Teachers praise white students while criticizing black students or calling mostly white students.
However, many current interventions aim to improve the school climate by avoiding race issues. For example, several programs rely on restorative justice. That concept is frequently applied in criminal justice settings and brings together victims and offenders to discuss an incident and give a voice to all parties involved.
Restorative justice practices can help teachers change the way they deal with discipline issues. Such approaches can also create school cultures based on trust and open communication, often rather than discipline. For example, many schools use a multi-line support system for students and staff. The first level is preventative: students gather in so-called community building circles to discuss a warning or question and listen to the perspectives of others. At the second level, students involved in a minor dispute work together in “sensitive circles” to solve the problem. And at level three, everyone involved in a serious dispute participates in a “restorative conference” where a trained facilitator guides the dialogue. If a student is still suspended, educators later welcome the student back to school and measure their need for additional support to get trapped.
In 2006, the suspension gap between black and white students in Denver’s large urban district was 12 percentage points: about 6 percent of white students had been suspended compared to 18 percent of black students. By 2013, the gap had narrowed to 8 percentage points, researchers reported in Closing the School Discipline Gap, a 2015 book co-edited by Losen. Some of the falls may be due to training in restorative justice, which began in the early 2000s.
However, educators continued to suspend more black students, at a rate of 10.42 percent compared to 2.28 percent for white students. Indeed, the colorblind approach has worsened the racial suspension gap from a triple difference between black and white students to more than five.
“Interventions to reduce disparities in … discipline cannot be race-neutral,” says Skiba of Indiana.
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Heading for the race
Decades have passed since Gregory watched that elementary school boy waiting outside the principal’s office. However, she continues to deal with how to help children like him.
Two years ago, for example, Gregory and his colleagues piloted a program at an elementary, middle, and high school in New York City to address racism in schools. That program combines a race-conscious version of restorative justice with socioemotional learning. The latter helps children regulate their emotions by teaching social and self-awareness and responsible decision making. During 25 hours of training, teachers meet in circles similar to those employed in Denver. However, the warning asks teachers to consider how structural racism harms children. After that initial training, coaches also work with individual teachers.
This facilitated dialogue around the career has helped teachers talk freely about their concerns, Gregory noted in 2018 in the professional publication The Learning Professional. For example, during training circles, teachers often express concern that non-punitive approaches are too soft or unstructured. When this happens, Gregory and his colleagues go through teachers through scenarios of alternative responses to students who misbehave.
Data collection is also key to the success of a new program, Gregory says. Clearing the numbers can illuminate disparities that might otherwise go unnoticed. For example, the pilot middle school in Gregory’s study had a predominantly black student population, which made racial gaps in the discipline less of a problem to begin with. However, school officials knew that girls had more behavior problems than boys. However, an examination of the discipline data showed that teachers punished boys more frequently and severely than girls.
In 2019, the team began expanding the program to eventually reach 18 schools in Queens and Brooklyn. Researchers are also monitoring how school leaders are providing support, such as space for restorative circles, and freeing up time for students to learn socioemotional skills. The pandemic, however, disrupted the expansion effort and the publication of preliminary results, Gregory says.
But research in education and other fields shows that efforts to eradicate people’s prejudices are rarely sustained. So instead of addressing the prejudice itself, Darling-Hammond, Okonofua, and UC Berkeley psychology student Amanda Perez recently tried to address its subsequent consequences. That is, if harsh discipline is seen as the culmination of a process that begins with bias and ends, for example, with expulsion, then what goals between those two points may be easier to change? The team identified activities that changed teachers ’thinking or helped them understand the perspective of a student misbehaving.
Work on two 2015 strikes showed that educators were quick to label black students as problems. So the trio wondered if teachers could be persuaded to adopt a “growth mindset”: the belief that students and relationships could change. The team also theorized that once teachers adopted a growth mindset, they would need time and space to get to know their students.
Okonofua and his colleagues knew from the 2015 study that teachers recommended 30 percent tougher discipline for black students than white students. Therefore, in a follow-up study, the team asked a different group of teachers in the United States to read cartoons about hypothetical students named Deshawn or Greg.
But this time the teachers had extra vignettes to read. First, about half of the 243 teachers read a snippet about the growth mindset, specifically how teachers can change a student’s life. Second, teachers read about how their relationship with students could grow. Third, they read about the student’s initial misbehavior. Fourth, they read about the student’s love for music and struggles outside of school. And finally, the teachers read about the student’s second misbehavior and then answered a set of questions.
Meanwhile, teachers in a control group only read the misbehavior vignettes interspersed with unrelated or subversive readings, as a passage about how relationships cannot change.
The intervention made responses to black and white students more positive. Compared to control group teachers, those who read the additional vignettes about Deshawn were less likely to label him as a problematic or expected him to be suspended in the future and were more likely to feel they could establish a strong relationship with him. the team reported Oct. 16 on Science Advances. Although those teachers were also less willing to see Deshawn receive harsh discipline, that finding did not reach statistical significance. Darling-Hammond now hopes to see these proven interventions out of the lab.
The virtual classroom
Meanwhile, Losen and others are concerned that the current COVID-19 pandemic may make it even more difficult to reduce the disciplinary gap. Data collected during the pandemic is not yet available, but recently there have been anecdotes from teachers who punished black students for misbehaving during online classes. Police arrived at the home of a 12-year-old boy in Colorado after his art teacher saw him play with a neon green toy gun. The school later suspended the child for five days. Police also visited a boy in New Jersey after a teacher saw him play with a Nerf pistol. Louisiana school officials suspended a 9-year-old boy for displaying an unloaded BB gun in his room.
During this pandemic, teachers have even less time and space to know what is happening in the lives of their students. And everyone’s stress levels are at an all-time high, Losen says. "Unless we do something very different and really meet the needs in a way we never had, we'll see a train wreck."