Disparities in Discipline:
Five Ways to Decrease Over Disciplining & Harm in Learning Communities
I remember the first time my son was sent to the principal’s office. It had recently rained, and his school playground had accumulated puddles of water. In his attempts to fix the drainage problem, he was creating a structure to drain the water from the gaga pit so he and his friends could play. Instead of seeing my son’s brilliance and innovation, he was sent to the principal’s office for what they deemed “disruptive behavior.” When it was all said and done, the school administration apologized for their actions and assumptions. However, the harm had already been done. When I asked my fourth grader how he felt about being sent to the principal’s office, he told me, “Mommy, I can’t do what other (white) kids do because I know that I will be punished for the same thing.”
Most of us believe that every child deserves to have a safe and welcoming school where they are celebrated and nurtured as individuals. We believe that every single child in our community deserves a learning environment that respects their humanity, upholds their dignity, and supports them as they learn about themselves and the world around them.
Unfortunately, in many schools across our nation, there is a clear pattern to how students are excluded from school through discipline and suspensions. This pattern of exclusion can be seen in every kind of school ranging from pre-school to college, public to private, and shows that specific groups of students are disproportionately disciplined and/or suspended. A recent study showed that North Carolina schools denied Black students access to education through out-of- school suspensions, at almost twice the state average of 7.6%. American Indian students (12.2%) and Multiracial students (8.8%) were also excluded from education through school suspensions, at rates substantially above the state average. Asian, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and White students received OSS at rates well below the state average.
Here are a few ways you can work to decrease disparities in discipline in your learning communities:
1. Partner With Families Through Open Forums
At regular intervals throughout the calendar year invite students and parents back to school for open forums, or community meetings, to discuss student safety and well-being. Consistently create a space for parents and students to share their concerns or questions regarding their experience with discipline in your learning community.
Listen and honor the experiences shared, and be prepared to take unique actionable steps, specific to each experience shared.
2. Build Relationships
Advocate for small classes where teachers and students can build strong relationships. The more known a child is to their teacher, the less likely that teacher will over-discipline them due to implicit bias, stereotypes, miscommunication, and misunderstandings. Also, a deepened sense of belonging and connection to the community has the potential to decrease teacher turnover, and increase student engagement.
3. Commit to Continuing Education
Educator training to increase empathy and understanding of implicit bias is an integral tool to combat over-disciplining of Black students in learning communities. A plethora of research suggests that students benefit tremendously when teachers, teacher’s aides, administrators, and systems leaders receive training and ongoing coaching on systemic racism, specifically on identifying bias and the actions needed to address it. Additionally, professional development in culturally responsive practices has been proven to increase student engagement, well-being, and belonging.
4. Data Driven Decisions
Every education community, public or private, should continuously collect and analyze data on discipline and use that data to inform internal policies, teacher training and support for children. Learning communities are impacted immensely when patterns of the over disciplining of specific groups of students are unearthed through data. From the discovery, action steps can then be taken to stop the harmful practice from occurring again.
5. Support Teacher and Students
Hire more social workers and counselors, and less police officers. School is a place where childhood happens. Every child, whatever their color, background or zip code, has the right to learn in a supportive environment that respects their humanity, upholds their dignity, and responds fairly to mistakes and mis-steps.
Here’s the Bottom Line: Our schools must treat every child as equal, especially in situations of conflict. By joining together – parents and teachers, Black, White, and Brown – we can make every public school a place where all children can learn, grow, and thrive.
Culturally Responsive Teaching Resources