Educators Advised to Remove Racial Bias from Disciplinary Procedures

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

 

Anne Gregory

Rutgers assistant professor Anne Gregory said racial disparities in school suspension rates cannot be explained away by statistics that show Black and Latino youths experience higher rates of poverty.

ATLANTA — In order to end persistent racial disparities in school suspension rates, educational leaders must make a conscious effort to root out racial bias from their disciplinary procedures and pursue more non-suspension alternatives.

Those were among the key points made during “Schoolhouse Discipline” — a two-day conference held in Atlanta over the weekend and sponsored by the Southern Education Foundation.

Though Black and Latino students, particularly those with various learning-related disabilities, are routinely suspended at disproportionately higher rates — for instance, the rates were 24.3 and 12 percent for Black and Latino students, respectively, at the secondary level, versus 7.1 percent for White students — one scholar noted that some schools have been able to buck the trend.

“The main point is there are alternatives that do work, that are effective and actually have reduced the number of kids being suspended, some of which cost money and some that don’t,” said Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.

To bolster his point, he cited examples of school districts that were noted for having both the largest number of high-suspending “hotspot” schools — or those that suspended 25 percent or more of any subgroup — as well as the highest number of relatively “low-suspending schools,” where 10 percent or less of each subgroup had been suspended.

Several districts — namely those in Los Angeles, Clark County in Nevada, Chicago, Houston and Jefferson County in Kentucky — found themselves in both categories, according to Out of School & Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools, a report that Losen co-authored with Tia Elena Martinez, a fellow researcher at the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

“These two lists exemplify the wide range of suspension rates and demonstrate that both types of schools can be found within one district,” the report states. “This suggests that successful alternative approaches are already in place in many districts.”

Losen stressed the need for educators to start “getting away from this attitude that we gotta kick out the bad kids so the good kids can learn.” He cited schools that were not able to improve achievement despite having high rates of suspension.

He said suspensions should be viewed in terms of days of lost instruction in order to demonstrate the negative effect that suspensions can have on school achievement.

During the 2012-13 school year in Syracuse, for instance, 23,555 days of lost instruction resulted from out-of-school suspensions.

“How could this not have a negative impact on achievement?” Losen said. “If we really care about helping kids in school where they can learn, we have to start thinking differently about this.”

Among other things, Losen suggested using alternatives that range from parent conferences and detention halls to “Saturday schools” and in-school suspensions. He cited research that shows better teacher training and student engagement leads to lower suspension rates.

“There’s a wide range of choices,” Losen said. “We’re not saying never remove a student from the classroom.”

But it’s important to pursue alternatives that ensure adult supervision instead of sending students home, where students may ultimately end up engaging in things that don’t further their learning, from playing video games to more risky behaviors such as hanging out in the streets.

Anne Gregory, assistant professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, said racial disparities in school suspension rates cannot be explained away by statistics that show Black and Latino youths experience higher rates of poverty.

“There’s been no evidence to say that socioeconomic status accounts for this gap,” Gregory said. “It accounts for some of it but not all of it.”

Gregory and Losen cited research that showed non-White students being punished more severely for similar offenses.

Though it was suggested that an “oppositional culture” that engulfs many Black youth might account for their higher rates of suspension, Gregory blamed a range of other factors, such as “unconscious stereotypes” regarding Black youth and overreactions to misunderstood “micoraggressions” such as a particular posture or body language.

Teacher training and building of stronger relationships are key to removing racial biases, Gregory said.

“When a student breaks the rules, stronger relationships can help diffuse conflict and disrupt any preconceived notions or unconsciously held stereotypes,” Gregory stated in one of her slides.

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